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What’s The Difference Between Purpose and Objectives? - HRDQ

What’s The Difference Between Purpose and Objectives?

Studies have found that companies that have a clear sense of purpose tend to be more successful. However, purposes are intentionally long-term and visionary, and the path to achieving the stated purpose isn't always straightforward.

To help fulfill the purpose of an organization, objectives are necessary. These concrete and clearly defined steps help a company reach its goals. The goals set by the business constitute a middle point between objectives and the overarching purpose.

Understanding the difference between purpose and objectives is essential to create a map you and your team can follow.

Let's look at what you need to know about defining your purpose, goals, and objectives as an organization. 

What Is the Definition of Purpose?

The Merriam-Webster definition of purpose is "something set up as an object or end to be attained." When your organization has a purpose, it has a long-term outcome that it is aiming to achieve. Fulfilling a purpose can take years, decades, or longer.

Behind every action a person takes, there is typically a motive or a purpose. Purpose provides the answer to why you are doing something and justifies why you are seeking your desired outcome.

Leader Explaining Tasks

Of course, all businesses exist to some extent to make money. However, a recent study from Deloitte found that organizations with a "culture of purpose" are more successful than those motivated by pure profit. According to the study, purpose-oriented companies had higher growth and productivity rates. On top of that, they had 40% higher workforce retention rates and 30% higher innovation levels than their competitors.

An example of a team's purpose might be to provide the best possible customer experience or to create a thriving company culture.

Understanding your employees' relationship with purpose can be helpful when instituting a purpose for your team. By working to learn why your team members are motivated to work at your organization in the role that they do, you can gain valuable insight into what motivates them, what they can contribute to the company, and how your purpose can be best stated to have the highest likelihood of success.

What Is the Definition of Objective?

On the other hand, objectives focus on short-term goals that can be used to reach a longer-term goal or fulfill a purpose.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of objective is "something toward which effort is directed: an aim, goal, or end of action."

Let's look at a simple example to help illustrate the point. A recent graduate and new employee is interested in purchasing a house but has no savings to put toward the down payment.

Buying a house is the individual's goal, and it could take years to get there. However, there are a number of more specific steps they can take to actually achieve this goal. These are the objectives.

For example, one objective might be to audit their income and spending to determine where they could save money each month. Another objective might be to create a budget to follow, or they might create the objective of putting away a specific portion of their paycheck every month.

A Team Setting Objectives

As you can see, there are many different objectives they could choose to complete to purchase a house. Along the path towards homeownership, the individual will pursue and finish many smaller objectives to reach their larger, long-term goal.

But how does purpose fit into this example?

The person that wants to buy a house might have several more prominent, overarching reasons that they have set the goal of homeownership. Maybe their implicit or explicit purpose is to have a larger sense of security over their housing, to enjoy the benefits of ownership, or to have a home where they can raise a family.

Now that we've looked at a simple illustration of objectives, goals, and purpose, it's easier to understand these terms in the office context.

An example of a team's objectives might be to improve customer satisfaction by 10% over the next month or to sell a certain number of products by a specific deadline. As you can see, these are measurable tasks. While purposes aren't necessarily something you can measure, whether or not you achieve an objective is almost always black and white.

What Are the Main Differences Between Purpose and Objectives?

Your purpose as an organization or a team is an overarching vision regarding your long-term plan or mission. Essentially, your purpose is an idea of a destination, while objectives are the milestones you reach along the path as you walk towards that destination.

Team Discussing Goals

Let's take a closer look at the specific differences between purpose and objectives.

Long-Term Vs. Short-Term

Steps to a Target

Objectives are short-term, specific goals that an individual or organization achieves to fulfill a larger purpose. On the other hand, an individual's or organization's purpose is the long-term, overarching goal that underlies and justifies every action taken.

How They Are Achieved

Team Working to Achieve Objectives

Fulfilling a purpose isn't something that happens overnight. Instead, it takes successfully carrying out a long list of objectives to get there. Objectives are set and achieved to help an individual or organization reach or fulfill their purpose.

Their Scope

Team Discussing Objective Scope

Usually, a purpose is a conceptual, abstract idea. For example, the purpose of a meal prep company might be to help their customers eat healthier, lose weight, save money, and save time. The company's objectives, though, are focused, precise, and much more concrete. These are based on facts and data rather than ideas and are much more narrow in scope.

Their Multiplicity

When an organization has a purpose, it has an ultimate goal or reason for existence. That is usually a singular concept.

Team Discussing Objectives

Objectives are a sequence of focused steps that are achieved to reach this purpose. For this reason, objectives are defined in the plural, while purpose is defined in the singular.

Their Difficulty

Employee Facing a Challenging Task

Well-designed objectives are simple to achieve and straightforward. A purpose, however, is multifaceted and complex. They are much more challenging to accomplish as they take more time, effort, collaboration, and organization. There are many more moving parts in a purpose than in an objective.

Their Timeframe

Team Setting a Timeframe

Fulfilling objectives can take days to months to achieve, depending on how the parameters of the tasks are outlined. Purposes, however, can take years to achieve, if not decades. Sometimes, an individual or an organization might have a purpose that takes a lifetime to fulfill.

Their Flexibility

Leader Describing Goals

Another critical difference between a purpose and an objective is flexibility. Since a purpose is an ultimate goal, it is rigid and inflexible. Objectives can be evaluated and changed to help receive the intended purpose. That means that they are much more flexible and adaptable over time.

What About Goals?

As you're working to understand the difference between purpose and objectives, you might wonder where goals fit into the picture.

Goals are achievable outcomes that tend to be long-term and broad. For example, an organization might set goals to help inform each department's yearly strategies.

In short, goals exist in the area between objectives and purpose. While your objective defines the measurable and specific actions that must be taken to reach the goal, your goals are milestones on your way to fulfilling your purpose.

To visualize the relationship between purpose, objectives, and goals, picture this. You are walking along a forest path, and you come to a pond with several small islands. If your purpose is to get to the other side of the pond by crossing over the water, the islands will represent your goals. The stepping stones you took to cross the water to get to each island would be your objective.

There are several different types of goals worth knowing about, including time-based, process-oriented, and outcome-oriented goals.

Leader Setting Goals

Time-based goals can provide a high-level description of what employees or teams should work toward within a certain period. These can be either short-term or long-term and can help teams plan and complete the most crucial tasks.

Outcome-oriented goals aren't focused on a specific timeframe and outline a goal the business hopes to achieve at some point down the road. The particular objectives created to help meet the goal can help assign deadlines to the entire project.

This type of goal is often used for significant business milestones such as leadership transitions and big-picture changes.

Process-oriented goals are best when an organization tries to set the direction for new processes and workflows. This type of goal doesn't focus on what outcome the business is aiming for. Instead, it explains the process a team needs to undergo to reach a specific goal.

This goal can be temporary or short-term because it can help create new and improved processes that become a regular part of an organization's structure. Process-oriented goals can be highly beneficial when management changes occur in a company.

How Do You Set Goals?

Goals are an important stepping stone between the overarching purpose of an organization and the specific objectives implemented to fulfill that purpose. Sometimes, the stated purpose of a company can be so conceptual that it is difficult to understand how it will be practically achieved.

Goals can help ground the purpose by breaking it up into smaller milestones. At the same time, goals can help individuals understand how completing stated objectives is connected to the larger purpose.

There are many different methods for setting goals, one of which is the SMART System.

Setting Office Goals

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.

  • Specific: Be very detailed in your description of what you are trying to achieve
  • Measurable: Set goals that you can monitor for effectiveness using objective information
  • Achievable: Make sure you are being realistic about the goals that are achievable from your current position
  • Realistic: Your goals should be possible and feasible, not pipe dreams
  • Time-bound: You should create a realistic timeline for achieving your goal and stick to it

Are you interested in learning more about goal setting? Check out this article about encouraging goal setting among employees.

What About Strategies?

Another word commonly tied in with purpose, goal, and objective is strategy. While an objective is a specific and measurable action that a team or employee needs to make to achieve a goal and a larger purpose, a strategy explains how the individual or team will complete the objective.

Team Creating Strategies

Strategies can shift and change throughout a project or a campaign. Objectives, on the other hand, should remain more fixed unless circumstances demand that they are altered.

For example, let's say that your team has a stated objective of increasing traffic to your site by 15%. You might use any or all of the following strategies to reach that end– a website re-design, focusing your efforts on SEO, or putting more of your budget toward paid advertising.

A Necessary Ingredient in Purpose Fulfillment: Leadership

When your organization or team has an overarching purpose they are working toward, defining this purpose is essential. However, it isn't usually enough for everyone to have a sense of what you're working toward, particularly if this purpose is somewhat subjective and conceptual (as they typically are.)

Helping your team set goals and objectives is integral to achieving your stated purpose. Even if your team is highly-skilled and motivated, they won't be able to work as efficiently or productively towards the agreed purpose without more detailed planning.

A Leader Setting Goals

That is where you step in. With your leadership skills, you can help communicate to your team the purpose you are working toward and the goals you will need to achieve along the way. You might then set specific objectives for your team to reach these goals, or you might teach them the skills they need to outline objectives on their own.

Either way, understanding and improving your leadership style can be incredibly beneficial when you feel your team is a bit directionless. Self-awareness is vital in leadership, and What's My Leadership Style can help you identify your style and work to become a more effective leader.

Have any questions about purpose, objectives, or their differences? If so, please feel free to drop a message in the comments section below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'll gladly answer any questions you may have!

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.