Three Objective Writing Pitfalls

January 13, 2023
In my prior essay, I made the case for business leaders and their design teams to be objective-driven versus problem-focused when it comes to formulating and executing creative strategies. As part of my pitch, I made a plea for a return to the discipline of sound objective setting. I highlighted the attributes of effective objectives through the acronym SAV: Specific, Actionable, and Verifiable.
In this essay, I touch upon three human frailties many of us fall prey to when formulating objective statements.  

Three Objective Writing Pitfalls

1) Confusing the means for the ends.
Put plainly, the paradigm of means and ends refers to an objective (the ends) and the strategy and tactics employed to achieve it (the means). People confuse the two when they take their focus off the ends and fixate on the means.
To illustrate, in a project brief to their design firm, a consumer electronics brand defines its objective as: "Redesign POS displays and signage in big box accounts." This statement is an assignment and not an objective. I doubt the client's ends are installing a new display. Instead, they intend the display to be a means to improve sales performance in some way. But, like many marketers are prone to do, that desired result is left off the brief.
Perhaps, the client assumes increasing sales is implied. However, there are a lot of variables along the path to purchase; which one is the key to increasing sales? For example, is the objective to speed comprehension of features and benefits? Or is it to attract more customers to the display?
I can't quite explain why most of us tend to elevate the means over the ends they're supposed to serve. Maybe it's because defining and accomplishing a task is more in our control than achieving an objective. Or, defining a goal puts us on the hook, and that's a little scary. Regardless, intentionality is required to both determine and achieve an objective.
2) Prescribing a strategy or tactic in the objective.
As much as I like to think designers and others memorize or keep my briefs within a hand's reach all of the time, the truth is that they don't. They skim it and refer to it when necessary. So, employing a short and specific objective increases comprehension and retention. And, of all the info on a brief, you want to deeply embed the objective in your team's memory.
Prescribing approaches, methods, or tactics unnecessarily lengthens and muddles an objective statement. I'll use the same fictional consumer electronics brand to illustrate, "Create an interactive experience as a way to drive more in-store traffic to the retail display by leveraging devices like augmented reality or touchscreens." Compare that to the more concise objective, "Attract more shoppers to the display." See what I mean? I recommend placing any strategic or tactical notions, prescriptions, or recommendations in the 'approach,' 'assignment,' or 'requirements' section of your brief.
In addition, prescribing strategy or tactics to an objective diminishes the actionability of the statement by unnecessarily steering or limiting your team toward one way of doing something, which takes the bat out of their hands. Don't include such directives in an objective statement unless it's a requirement. And if it is, put it in the 'assignment' or 'mandatories' section of the brief, not in with the objective.
3) Succumbing to FOLO.
FOLO stands for the Fear Of Leaving Out, and it's another human frailty that gets in the way of crafting clear objectives. FOLO is hard to resist because we want to ensure we cover all the bases, prevent criticism, or be inclusive of others' input. Or, as I am so prone to do, we want to sound smart, so we add buzzwords and puffed-up language.
Glen Deering Quote - "Splitting attention between multiple objectives is a recipe for confusion stew that will be muddled and bland"
Sometimes, projects have more than one objective. Now, there are two ways to approach this situation. The first is to identify a macro objective that, if achieved, will meet all the goals. If that isn't feasible, you must assign one of the objectives as primary. Two or more objectives can't carry equal weight. By definition, only one thing can lead. Splitting attention between multiple objectives is a recipe for confusion stew that will be muddled and bland. In this case, distinguish your objectives as primary, secondary, or tertiary.

Part Three Preview

In my last essay, Two Exercises for Setting Sound Objectives, I offer two quick activities to home in on the right objective. It drops on Tuesday, October 11.
Click here to read the previous essay


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