Objectives, Not Problems, Drive Effective Design

January 4, 2023

Part One: Objectives as a Design Catalyst

As a professional question-asker, I've never really cared for the query, “What keeps you up at night?” I'm more curious to know what gets someone to jump out of bed in the morning. Why? Well, as there is more therapeutic value when a doctor treats the whole patient, not just their disease, understanding a client's vision and aspirations provides more strategic value than just identifying their pain points.
I think too many in the creative and design fields treat diseases, not patients. And that leads to squandered potential and missed opportunities for their clients and themselves, not to mention wasted time, talent, and money.
The 'insomnia' question is so common because it appeals to people's innate negativity bias, that tendency to fixate on the bad stuff. You see, problems and issues are always top of mind. So they're easier to coax from clients versus visions and aspirations.
However, the problem with leading with problems is that it distracts the strategist, designer, creative, or business leader from the true catalyst for growth: a clear objective.

Objective-Driven Design

Truly needle-moving design is guided by a defined objective, not a problem. A problem is simply an obstacle to overcome on the way to achieving an objective. Designing to solve a problem not contextualized by a greater objective often causes a team to swirl.
In my experience, pursuing a defined objective aligns and focuses a team's design efforts and dramatically increases success rates. You see, problems are prone to morphing and changing. An issue that's a priority today can be an afterthought tomorrow. And, addressing a problem that isn't tethered to a defined objective often leads to misspent energy and overdesigned creative. So, maintaining a constant focus on the prime objective reduces diversions and distractions.
Glenn Deering Quote - "Truly needle-moving design is guided by defined objective, not a problem."

Where Have All the Objectives Gone?

From where I sit, effectively setting and sticking to objectives has become a neglected discipline. Please tell me if this resonates; how often have you been about seven minutes into a meeting when you or someone else says, "Remind me, what's the purpose of this meeting? What's our objective?" The meeting likely kicked off with someone wading into the weeds of a problem.
Now, don't get me wrong, objectives aren't totally absent from America's PowerPoint presentations. However, they tend to be vague, muddled, or misused when offered.

What is an objective?

I recently saw an old clip of comedian George Carlin making fun of the phrase, 'occasional irregularity.' He cracked, "what other kind can there be? If it were frequent, it would be regularity."
Just as redundant is the phrase 'strategic objective.' Can there ever be a random objective? No! Some objectives may be weightier than others, but that doesn't negate their strategic nature.
An objective is both the start and finish line of sound strategic thinking. It's impossible to chart a course for success without one. A clear, well-communicated goal focuses a team's strategies and actions—creating an empowering and gratifying experience for all involved. Vague, convoluted, or undefined objectives result in a meandering and shapeless strategy, which leads to confusion and frustration.
As I see it, an objective is a decision you make for the future. And the most critical part of any decision is one's commitment to it once it is made. Commitment is just as crucial as judgment when it comes to good decision-making. So, once you set an objective, please resist the urge to morph, switch, or abandon it. Every objective change causes the team to shake the Etch A Sketch and start again.
However, I have one caution before committing to an objective, make sure it's a sound one. The best-written objectives are specific, actionable, and verifiable. Together, these attributes form the very helpful acronym: SAV. I think it's very apropos because a sound objective saves a project from the outset.  
Specific: Effective objectives clearly identify the object you seek to impact, along with the desired outcome. For example, "Increase sales conversion by at least 10%." 'Sales conversion' is the object, and 'increase by at least 10%' is the outcome.
Actionable: The best objective statement is a single, straightforward sentence without preambles, explanations, or qualifiers. They also don't have flowery or jargony language. Save the urge to inspire or inform for other areas of your brief like the 'Current Situation' section.  
Verifiable: An objective is useless without some way to verify if you're making progress or when you’ve achieved it. Establishing quantifiable metrics is the best practice.

However, some worthwhile objectives can only be verified qualitatively, as a mechanism may not exist to quantify results. In these cases, the objective must be able to answer the question, "When will we know we achieved our goal?"
For illustration, a qualitative objective statement could read, "Our objective is to attract more high-caliber talent, and we'll achieve it when we are named to the Best Places to Work."

Part Two Preview

In my following essay, Three Objective Writing Pitfalls, I highlight the human frailties many of us fall prey to when formulating an objective statement. It drops Tuesday, October 4.
Click for Part 2


Glenn Deering is Executive Director of Strategy at Latitude—a strategic design firm in Minneapolis.