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Setting project goals

8 min read

We all have goals. Some are small and some set high. Some people succeed in what they aim to do. Others chase their goals and fail. In project management, it's much the same. According to the Project Management Institute, only 60% of projects actually meet the goals that were set. This means that one in three projects is a waste of resources, that companies invest time, manpower and financial resources without achieving the expected result. So how do you avoid your own project ending up being that "one in three projects"? A well-considered definition of goals is a good approach.

What are project goals and why are they so important?

Another question: why are projects actually so important? Or, in other words, why do companies start projects in the first place? Out of boredom? Very unlikely.

At the end of the day, projects are always about improving a given state - making progress following some ideal.

This improvement can be about different areas of the business. It can be about revenue, it can be about internal processes, it can even be about motivating employees.

An IT company develops a product in the course of a project that is supposed to have a positive impact on revenues. The HR department is working on a project to develop a strategy that will increase employee motivation and ultimately boost employee loyalty. A community is planning to build a public swimming pool to make it more attractive to local residents.

As you can see, every project has its reason... a specific goal to be achieved at the end of the project.

To lead the project successfully to completion, its goals should be defined with the utmost precision. Why?

Project goals point the way

Only those who have a clear understanding of their goals will be able to achieve them, because after all, there is also the risk of going astray during the course of the project. This may happen easier than you think, especially with larger projects. As the saying goes: You might miss the forest for the trees and and add requirement after requirement because all of them seem to be really neat. Do these requirements support the project goal? Never thought about it? That's bad, because this "uncontrolled addition of requirements" - also referred to as scope creep - may cost you the success of your project in the worst case.

Project goals support evaluation

In close connection with their guiding function is another characteristic that makes project goals indispensable: it is only because of them that the results achieved can be properly measured or evaluated. Was the project a success? If the intended goals were achieved, you can answer this question with "yes". Is it necessary to adjust processes in the future, plan resources better, or take a closer look at risks? If goals were insufficiently, barely or never actually achieved, this could be a consideration worth thinking about further.

Project goals are motivating

Motivation is the basis for success. Motivation is what drives us. It is the reason why we regularly fight our way through mountains of work, even though it is a pain in the butt.

And where does this motivation come from? From clear goals that we have set for ourselves and want to achieve: good grades, a promotion, a special award, or simply a decent push for our own company through successful project implementation.

Looking for signs of low motivation and staying open to approaches to boost employee motivation is always a good idea. Those who do will benefit from a strengthened team pulling together.

The right time to set project goals

Goal setting is an elementary part of project planning and thus it should take place at the beginning of the project. This way, goals will ultimately form the guideline for the project team, which will point the right direction during the implementation. Within the 5 phases of project management, the project planning - and with it also the goal setting - directly follows the initiation phase. In the same course, the team will determine a precise project scope as well as the time and financial framework - this is the magic triangle, drawing clear boundaries for the project.

How to find goals for your project

The questions you should ask yourself when defining your project goals revolve around one central question: What is the state you aim to end up with after the project?

In answering this question, you may consider different classes of goals that will be used to establish project goals.

Determine goal classes using the magic triangle

Good project goals are always established in the context of the magic triangle, because this also provides the goal dimensions to aim for in the project with its components of scope/performance, cost, and time.

  • The project should deliver a certain output.
  • The project should be completed within the time frame set.
  • The project shall not exceed the financial scope.

Goal classes based on the magic triangle are therefor:

  • Performance goals
  • Financial goals
  • Time goals

As you can imagine, it is not always easy to do equal justice to all these goal dimensions, mainly because the three parameters influence each other. If you have to increase the scope, you will need more time. If a project is in danger of being delayed, you will need more resources or you will have to make sacrifices in terms of performance. You see, there's a good reason why some people think they actually need magic in order to comply with all three parameters.

Identify goal classes using the STEP analysis

If you take a closer look at various projects, you can see that there are other goal classes not specifically listed by the magic triangle. In addition, you will find that social goals are often added to the goal classes, as well.

Another approach to classification is the so-called STEP analysis, which usually comes into play in connection with risk analysis - for example, during the SWOT analysis.

According to STEP, you can extract the following goal classes:

  • Social goals
  • Technological goals
  • Economical goals
  • Political goals

Further classification by process and outcome

To prevent the project goals from becoming too confusing later, we can further classify the goal classes into outcome goals and process goals. Outcome goals include all goals related to the end results of the project, while procedure goals include all goals for a functioning project process.

Goals related to the magic triangle and social goals would be categorized as follows:

Process goals: Time related goals, cost related goals
Result goals: Performance goals, Social goals

Who is involved in goal setting?

In order to support goal setting and goal tracking as good as possible, the project stakeholders should be involved from the very beginning. That way, they can cover the goals in detail, and everyone understands what the team is working toward."

How to define smart and clear goals

Numerous studies and surveys annually address the question why some projects are a success while others fail. Goal setting always ranks high on the list of most important influencing factors. However, a disorganized and too imprecise goal setting is basically as critical as having set no goals at all. The undertaking is not easy by any means, which is why there are some guidelines that support the definition and formulation of project goals.

Setting goals according to the SMART framework

Smart goals must be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.


Frequently, people tend to set goals quite vaguely, simply because vague goals are easier to achieve.

Likely, you will have goals of the type "create landing pages for the new home page" tossed into the room at first. I would throw them right back, and I think you would, too. There are too many ambiguities left open.

A goal should be phrased as specifically as possible, i.e. it should answer all the important WH questions and leave no room for misinterpretation.


Did you achieve the goal? Was it a sufficiently achievement? Could and should it have been better? Specific numbers (comparative values, ratios, etc.), on the basis of which the benefit or advantage of the goal can be classified, help to evaluate the goal later. This is the only way to determine whether it is actually considered "achieved".


This goal criterion can be very challenging, as some hurdles and difficulties may only arise during project implementation. For this reason, it is even more important to understand that project goal setting is closely related to all other areas of project planning - in this context, very specifically, resource planning and risk analysis.

It is important to assess as accurately as possible in advance which goals are realistic and can actually be achieved. If the goals are set too high, this will in all likelihood lead to frustration, but in any case to an overload on the team, which can also massively inhibit motivation. It is therefore important to break down larger project goals into smaller achievable subgoals.


The goals to be achieved must be relevant. In plain words, they should be in line with the company's goals but also in the spirit of the team. They must correspond to the responsibilities and capabilities of the employees and should therefore be determined in consultation with all parties involved.


The last important goal criterion deals with the time component. Every goal that is set needs a clear "due date" in coordination with the project timeframe, because this is the only way it can be measured and evaluated later.

Setting goals according to the CLEAR framework

Clear Goals are collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable, refinable.


Goals must support collaboration.


Goals are clearly limited in duration and scope.


Goals are accepted and supported by all employees. They feel connected to the goals. Therefore, they are motivated and passionate about implementing them.


Bigger goals will be broken down into smaller goals to make them easier to implement with a realistic amount of effort.


Goals remain flexible so they can be adjusted to changing conditions at any time.

Whatever approach you decide to use for definition, the most important thing is that the defined goals leave no questions unanswered, that they provide a clear direction for the project, and are accepted and supported by everyone involved.

Good goal vs. bad goal - an example

Goal: Increase conversion rate.

This goal is not very smart. While it is relevant and achievable, it is neither specific, nor time-bound or measurable.

Goal: By developing an introduction sequence at the beginning of the test phase that addresses the 10 most common problems new users face, the conversion rate should rise by 25% by the end of Q3 compared to Q2.

This goal is smart:

  • Specific (By developing a introduction sequence at the beginning of the test phase)
  • Measurable (by 25% compared to the previous quarter)
  • Achievable (the 10 most common problems new users face)
  • relevant (increase in conversion rate)
  • timely (by the end of the Q3)

What you need to consider after goal setting

Monitoring is the key word. During project implementation, progress must be continuously monitored. Of course, it is also important to keep an eye on the goals. Are we on the right track? Do we need to take measures to avoid missing our goals? Do goals change and do we need to inform the team of this?"

A goal is only as good as its execution!

"Success is the gradual realization of a worthy goal or ideal." You should frame this phrase by Earl Nightingale and put it right on your desk, because there is so much truth in it.

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Lena Wimmer
About the Author:
Lena Wimmer is Product Marketing Manager at Stackfield. She is passionate about American literary history, great content and cinematography.
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