“But what’s the project objective, sir?”

Project Objective

Don’t think I need to belabor this point: work is often a priority vacuum. The project objective? Make as much money as is humanly f’n possible and tell everyone how important that underscores you are. Of course, there’s a major problem with this approach. In a given for-profit company, only about 2 in 5 roles are even revenue-facing. There’s a lot of support staff stuff. If you don’t face revenue, but all anyone seems to care about is revenue, what exactly do you do to get your slice of the “I am relevant here I promise” pie? The main approach most people take is constantly telling everyone how busy they are, which makes some degree of sense. It also buries productivity in the flood, because busy and productive ain’t the same thing. (Shocking, really, how few people seem to understand that.) When productivity is dead, no one knows what the project objective — of any project, large or small — really is. Some research has shown that 50 percent of employees at enterprise companies do nothing of value all day. More: 21.4 million middle managers add no bottom-line value. Still more: these issues lose you about $15.5 million every year.

In short: most offices are a giant game of Who’s On First. Seemingly every project is urgent, which stresses the hell out of most front-line workers, even though the only thing urgent to executives is “find me a new revenue stream” and/or “show me and then explain to me these numbers.” Project objective? What’s that? Let’s just run around with our hair engulfed in flames screeching about this, that, or the other thing. Unfortunately, this is work to a lot of people. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have readers. And if it wasn’t, global employee engagement stats wouldn’t be in the toilet — and declining, somehow.

What now?

First up: A quote from Kellogg

Here’s an article called “Four Ways Innovators Can Use Time To Their Advantage,” which makes sense — we currently all live in The Time Management Era, and most companies aren’t that innovative.  So maybe this article will solve some things! Down near the bottom, there’s this:

“I can’t think of very many organizations that create a very clear project objective for reflection,” Schonthal says. “Usually it’s ‘Go, go, go, go, go! What’s the next step? What’s the next step?’ Well, sometimes the best next step is taking a look back at what’s happened already.”

Yep. Nailed it.

What’s the simplest reason why this all happens?

In a sentence or two? We live in an achievement-driven culture, and hence people want to advance. The easiest way to advance at most organizations is through a focus on execution, or checking boxes for those above you to help them look better to those above them.  When you spend 15-20 years focusing only on checking execution boxes, self-reflection kinda atrophies. So now all you know is go go go busy busy busy as opposed to any way to get to clear priorities or assess what just happened. The project objective will never be defined. It’s a constant game of Deliverables Tether Ball now.

A note on job role

Most are not clear. What tends to happen is that companies hire for immediate need, without thinking “Will this need exist in 17 months?” It probably won’t, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is solving the now now now problem that some manager is bellowing about. A lot of times, people come in and have work to do for 2-3 months — then for two years, they’re sitting around. (Sometimes 10-11 years.) With a regular annual raise or “cost of living increase,” the company is now saddled with this drone for a decade. You’ve all seen, known, or maybe even been that person in a job. Poor job roles also contribute to the project objective never being clear to people.

Can we someday make the project objective clear?

We could, but it would require advancing different types of managers. We spend a lot of time focused on execution (as noted above), and so the executors — the bell-ringers! — tend to rise to the top. Usually (not always), these guys are total assholes. And because they spent a decade getting reamed by their bosses, they become a boss and want nothing more than to ream someone down the chain. It’s a nice little cycle.

Want to work together?

And look, here’s a broader point: to a lot of people, the project objective doesn’t even matter. It’s not about the quality of the work or the priority of the work. It’s about controlling how the work is done, and over-focusing on the quantity that exists. That’s how many manage. It made sense in 1911 — we were an industrial production society then — but it makes a lot less sense now, unfortunately. And that’s why, in a given office, you’ll find 5 in 10 people who can’t name the project objective of whatever they’re working on.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. It’s interesting that people who have been afforded the privilege of important decision-making at organizations gloss over crucial building blocks of the trade, isn’t it? I took a project management course last year, and the instructor was careful to emphasize the importance of adding “lessons learned” to the project charter at the end to document critical takeaways from the project for use in later excursions. I see that as related to your point about needing to discuss project objectives.

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