Goals, milestones, aims and objectives

In the English language the terms goals, aims, missions and objectives all mean essentially the same thing and are used interchangeably in business and in everyday life. But frequently in a project management environment they are used to distinguish between long-term and short-term targets.

On project management courses they often talk about the importance of the business objective in a project and how this is the over-riding factor that should always be our primary concern in every decision making activity throughout the project. So an objective or aim is clearly the final outcome of the project – it could, for example, be “Implement an online booking and payment system…”. It may, or may not, include some type of deadline, for example, “…by the end of 2011”.

The business objective or aim represents the ultimate vision of the project sponsor and other stakeholders of what will be achieved when the project is successfully delivered.

Goals and milestones, on the other hand, relate to intermediate targets that can be used to determine whether the project is on track. They can also, sometimes, be points at which to deliver a completed stage or phase of the project. They can represent the completion of a packet of work that can be used independently of the final product and add some business benefit of their own.

So goals or milestones are short-term achievements of which an example is: “Build an online data repository for client booking details.” Goals are very project-specific and particularly In IT projects their benefit may be less obvious to the end-user – it may be an underlying IT development required for future tasks, such as a library of functions that brings no immediate business benefit.

It may seem a little pedantic to differentiate between these terms in project management, but the distinction is worthwhile to avoid ambiguity. Project management methodologies such as PMP and PRINCE2 place great emphasis on the business objective throughout the life of the project. And perhaps, just as importantly, this distinction provides the project team with a manageable set of targets to achieve in relatively short timeframes. The goals or milestones will motivate the team during the course of the project but the objective or aim will ensure they stay focussed on the end result as the project progresses and the inevitable changes and problems arise.