GOST In The Machine

The terms "goal," "objective," "strategy" and "tactic" are often confused and mis-used. I wanted to write a couble of short entries on the GOST terms, and clarify their use. As they say, an ounce of example is worth a pound of advice, so I'll be using examples primarily from the War Between the States.

Goal

A "goal" is an endpoint, a future. In war, it might seem obvious that the goal is to win the war. But a goal of "winning" is meaningless, and itself can lead to defeat (I believe many wars have been lost because people were too busy trying to "win" and lost sight of the goal of winning). One must define what winning means in order to define a goal. In the Civil War, for example, the goal of the Union was very different from the goal of the Confederates. The Union's goal was to quash rebellion in the South and force the Southern states to rejoin the union. The Confederates' goal was to defend their secession, to repulse Northern aggression. Both camps had a goal, and marshalled their forces to achieve the goal. The military on both sides could use the stated goal to organize their objectives, strategies and tactics around achieving the goal.

An organization's "goal" is often communicated through a mission statement. Some people feel mission statements are pointless -- propoganda, cheerleading. Often they are right, but done correctly, they can also be a powerful tool.

One organization's mission statement was "Deliver wow products that elate customers." Sounds catchy, but it's about as useful as having a military goal of "win the war." It is vague and unmeasurable. The mission statement cannot be used to judge the objectives of the organization; it cannot be used as a decision making tool; and the organization cannot know when they have achieved the goal. Could you imagine product managers rating their products, and caneling all "neat" and "cool" products and only spend their effort on the "wow" ones? Or canceling a project because it will only "delight" customers but it won't "elate" them?

In constrast, one small aerospace company had a boring-sounding mission statement which I believe to be one of the best I've heard. It went something like: Be the number one or two supplier of aircraft engine sensors and engine status indication systems. It told the company:

  • They were not going to develop other sensors.
  • They were not going to develop control systems.
  • They were not going to develop other indicators or cockpit displays.
  • They weren't going to enter the market of automotive engines, or land turbines.
  • There were going to develop, manufacture and sell sensors and indicators for airplane engines.
  • And they weren't done until they were the number one or number two supplier in that market.

Not very catchy, but it did create a frame of reference for directors to review their product development plans and portfolios and make serious decisions. It also provided measurable criteria to know when the goal was achieved.

Objective

An objective is a means by which you attain a goal; it's a step that must be completed in order to achieve the goal. Using the Civil War analogy, the North had a number of objectives in order to achieve their goal. One objective was called the Anaconda Plan: Close the Southern ports to prevent the sale and export of argicultural products to Europe, and the importatation of industrial products and weapons. Of course, England was a key trader with the South, and a second objective of the North was to avoid going to war with England -- war with England would not help achieve the goal of reunification. So the original Northern objective could probably be better stated as: Block Southern ports without risking a war with European powers. With that, an admiral could understand the objective and devise strategies to achieve it. Several strategies that support this objective include:

  • Formally declaring a "blockade" (the 1861 "Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports"). A formal blockade is recognized by international law, and gave the Union Navy certain powers to enforce the blockade with neutral ships.
  • Enforcing the blockade if seaports with a number of new, fast Union Navy ships.
  • Control the Mississippi River with new river gunboats and the support of Army troops

and so forth. The objective also ruled out the strategy of invading Cuba, a primary port in Southern trade routes -- doing so would have helped blockade the South, but would have led to conflicts with Europe, and could not have been defended by the Proclamation of Blockade. Knowing the objective, one can come up with a set of strategies, and judge if the strategies actually support the objective.

Businesses also have objectives to meet their goals. Selling into a specific market or market segment might be an objective. And if you have a well-defined goal, it should be clear which markets to attack. Without a goal (or with a poorly conceived goal), it becomes much more difficult to decide where to apply your resources. Some effort may be spent on fruitless products; other opportunities may be missed. In some cases, a poor goal at the corporate level can lead to conflicting objectives within business units -- one business unit decides to sell a product that competes with another business unit, canibalizing margins.

A clear and measurable goal, supported by a set of clear and measurable objectives make it possible to create a set of strategies and tactics to be successful. Without goals and objectives, an organization is just groping in the dark for a purpose.

Strategy and Tactics

Strategy is the top-down planning needed to achieve an objective. Tactics are the bottom-up planning to achieve a strategy. More on that in my next entry.


Copyright 2006, Robert J. Hueston. All rights reserved.
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