How to audit your objectives

How do you audit the objectives in your organisation?

The first thing is to be clear why you are doing it.

If you want your organisation to be successful, it’s vital that everyone has the right objectives.


If you are going to do an audit it’s probably to make sure the objectives are right, perhaps to find out if you have SMART objectives or goals, or to find out what’s wrong with them so you can get them right.


Once you have decided why, the next step is to work out how to do it. There are various options. Some take more time than others, some give you better quality information and, of course, some are more expensive.

So you need to be really clear just what you need and what your budget is, before you go ahead with your audit.

To help you with this, I’ve put together a table listing out some of the options and the advantages and disadvantages of six different methods. Please use this form to get the table:

What you need to look for

Are the objectives SMART?

This is the first thing most people go for. Are the objectives:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bounded

The trouble is, you can’t check all of these easily.  The first criterion, ‘Specific’, is relatively easy. And so is ‘Measurable’. In fact they overlap considerably.

It’s when you come to “Achievable” objectives that you start to get problems. Unless you know the job well, it’s rarely possible just by looking at an objective, to judge whether it’s achievable or not. To do that you really have to talk to the individual and their manager.

“Realistic” is another difficult one and isn’t that easy to distinguish from “Achievable”. “Time-bounded” is easier, though most people are not aware of all the different ways of putting time into objectives.

Alignment of objectives

Even if you can check if objectives are SMART, in many cases, that’s not really the most important issue. It’s much more important that the objectives are aligned to the top goals of your organisation (which is why I recommend you use the “A” in SMART for “aligned” rather than “achievable”). To check this thoroughly you need to audit objectives, starting at the top and working your way down through a command chain. Objectives also need to be horizontally aligned so that you don’t have conflicts or duplication between teams and colleagues. This is very hard to check for in an audit unless you get teams together to look at it.

The biggest problem with objectives

As you will know from Pareto (the 80/20 rule) most of the problems will be concentrated in 20% of the objectives. So if you are trying to get the objectives right, you really want to find those 20%.

As it happens, I can give you a clue there. Having audited thousands of objectives over the years, the biggest obstacle to getting them right is that the objectives at the top are poor. This makes it virtually impossible for anyone else to get theirs right. You’ll save yourself a lot of time, money and effort if you get those right first before carrying out any audit.

To get your Objectives Audit table please use this form:

Why you need unachievable objectives

Have you been asked to agree to an objective or goal that is unachievable? Or have you asked someone to agree to an unachievable objective?

Have you been ruled by SMART?

Here’s a reminder of what “SMART” stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bounded

Have you only set ‘achievable’ objectives?

The truth is that there are some objectives that you should set that are unachievable.  Yes, you did read that correctly.

Imagine you are a surgeon. Would your objective be that all your patients were alive by the end of each operation? I certainly hope so. But we all know that, in spite of your best efforts, sometimes that won’t happen.

So you could agree to an objective of 95% survival to make sure your objective was ‘achievable’.

Now imagine you are the patient. You need some life-saving surgery. Your surgeon has an objective of 95% success rate. She operates on 100 people each year. The first 95 have survived. You are patient 96.

Imagine your surgeon’s remark: “Well, I’ve already achieved my objective, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t make it.”

The real problem with objectives and goals that aren’t achievable

The issue is in how we reward people for their performance.

Imagine there are two surgeons: Janet and John. Janet has an objective of 95% survival, John has an objective of 100%. Everything else is the same.

Janet has achieved 97% survival. John has achieved 99%. In some reward schemes, Janet might get a bonus for ‘exceeding expectations’, and John might get a performance rating of ‘Partially met’.

Which surgeon would you like?

For more on how to write your objectives get my booklet
How to Write Objectives that Work

The Mistake Safety Net

Have you ever made this mistake? Something happens, you assume you know why, and you are completely wrong?

I have a little safety net that usually saves me from seriously bad mistakes. Let me share it with you. You might find it useful.

The problem

First let me describe the situation. Just last week, a friend (we’ll call her Elizabeth), had trouble with her son behaving quite badly and the situation ended up with the police being involved. The boy, we’ll call him David, is 15. He was in a car park one evening with some friends, when he was supposed to be at a party in the town centre.

It was a party for under-18s run in a nightclub. Two of the boys had been thrown out because they were drunk and no alcohol was allowed. In fact they weren’t drunk, but a boy who was drunk had fallen into them so the nightclub owners just threw all three out.

The other two, including David, left the club to see what had happened to their friends. Once they had left the club they were not allowed back in again so were wandering the streets for a couple of hours before the party was due to finish and their parents were coming to pick them up.

One of the other boys, a bit of a lout as it turns out, pulled a spray can from his bag and sprayed the side of a van that happened to be parked nearby. He then handed another can to David, who sprayed a wall and a road sign, stupidly, with his own initials. The other two boys joined in.

They were spotted by a member of the public who alerted the police. As it was a Saturday night, the police weren’t far away and the four boys ended up inside a police van.

My friend was having dinner with the parents of another boy who was still at the party. They had asked her over to save her making so many trips that evening. She described the delicious meal they had cooked for her. She was just on her second mouthful of the excellent cheese soufflé starter when she got a call from another parent of one of the boys the police were talking to.

This parent was incandescent and blamed David for getting her son into trouble with the police, brining alcohol to the party and being involved in a fight.

You can imagine Elisabeth’s horror as she listened to the angry shouting on the phone. She was not to know at this stage that much of it was inaccurate.

The coaching

Later that week she called me and told me what had happened. She was extremely upset and very angry with David. She asked if I could have a word with him.

I knew that he had been with a group of other boys when the incident took place. Elizabeth had told me that one of the boys was quite an unpleasant child and a bad influence.

The motives

So it was quite easy to understand that the problem was one of peer pressure and David’s not knowing how to deal with it. I set about asking a few other teenagers I knew of the same age how they dealt with the situation and went along prepared with some tools that he could use.

The questions

I asked him these questions (which I had prepared earlier): ‘What happened?”
Then, to get more detail, I asked him: “What did you do?”
Then I asked him why he had done it. “Because it was new and I’d never done it before. I like doing new things”, he said.

I was extremely surprised. There was no remorse. He wasn’t even blaming his friends. He just didn’t think or even care about the consequences or the feelings of the people whose property he had damaged.


Fortunately I had some other strategies up my sleeve, mainly involving more questions.

Lack of empathy

To me, David’s lack of empathy was quite chilling, but according to the research, this is now more common that it used to be. To find out more have a look at this page
College Students are Less Empathic than Generations Past

What can you do to help people develop empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others. You will have heard parents asking their children “How would you feel if someone took your train when you were playing with it?” This is the starting point.

How to help an individual to start thinking about how others feel

The way to do that is to ask questions. They can be questions like:
How did you feel when…?
How would you feel if…?

Some say that young people today spend too long on computer games where they can kill people and cause mayhem with no penalty and that’s what causes them to have less empathy, or that simply dealing with people through technology rather than face to face makes all the difference.

Whatever the reason, I am sure that reduced empathy is a problem and is likely to cause more problems if it increases. So perhaps we all need to be asking ourselves and others these questions.

More poor empathy

My inability to guess accurately why David behaved as he did also shows a lack of empathy. It never occurred to me that he would be thinking in this way.

Safety Net

In spite of this, my “Safety Net” of always asking the questionss before I dive in with answers helped me out and caught me just in time. Try it yourself. It just takes a few minutes of preparation and planning.

To help with thinking up the right questions and understanding motivation you can get our booklets “Questions Made Easy” and “How to Motivate Yourself and Others” at a reduced price to £5.00 just for this week.

Questions Made Easy (downloadable version)
How to Motivate Yourself and Others (downloadable version)

Questions Made Easy (hard copy)
How to Motivate Yourself and Others (hard copy)