Tuesday, 4 August 2009

4 simple steps to clarifying your objectives

“To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.” Benjamin Disraeli

Having a clear end point is a fundamental to success: the clearer the vision, the greater the chances of success.

But what if you can’t quite see the end point? What if you are still feeling your way? What if there are unanswered questions and more feedback that is needed?

This is a problem with clarifying objectives – there are always unknowns, always things that change and always unforeseen events.

The key is to identify what is known and what is unknown. When they are muddled up together it is difficult to where you are or how you should proceed. Or indeed, whether you should proceed at all.
  1. Clarify what is known. Define the certainties and agreed them.
  2. Clarify what is not known. Have a symbol in your planning document that clearly shows uncertainties and unknowns.
  3. Prioritise the unknowns. Some may be fundamental to your goals, while others will be incidental. Identifying the uncertainties enables you to start prioritising them.
  4. Plan. Figure out a plan of action to deal with the unknowns. This may or may not change what you had previously known, but that’s fine. What’s important is that you have moved forward.

Clarifying, sorting, prioritising and planning provide a simple and effective way forward. I use it extensively in systems analysis. During a process of investigation there are many things that are on a continuum from known to unknown. Sorting them out and systematically dealing with them is part of the process of designing a great system. It is also part of succeeding with any type of project.

Try it today with your most important project. It needn’t take long, but will help move you forward more confidently.


  1. Caroline,
    I stumbled across your blog from your comment on Zen Habits. I enjoyed this post despite the fact that I am not big into performance management in a business sense. For me this post definitely applies to my life and the goals that I want to achieve. I am trying to figure out exactly what career to pursue and this four step process is a helpful way to think about it

  2. Hi Ryan

    Thanks for leaving a comment. From what you say you are already applying lots of performance management principles in your search for a fulfilling career. I hope the 4-step process is a useful for you.

    All the best

  3. This is great advice and a nice list! Very useful! Thanks,Caroline

  4. Very beautiful posts and some excellent thoughts. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  5. useful thinking for projects - I suspect we often tend to shelter in the comfort of the known. to list and prioritise our unknown throws us right out of that and puts us into a place of work and discovery. this of course, is the place where all the fun is to be had!
    thanks - helpful and will apply today with a project with a large unknown area I've been avoiding!