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Groups and teamwork
Groups and teamwork

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4.3.2 Setting goals and objectives

Whatever the structure and culture of an organisation and the range of people involved, goals and objectives are usually seen as a valuable management tool. This is as relevant to a project team as it is to a whole organisation. What I will focus on here are some of the tensions and ambiguities surrounding the management of goals, especially in the context of team development. To be effective in clarifying and achieving the team task, we need to take account of the variety of (often conflicting) purposes served by team goals. We also need to think about the dilemmas associated with goals – the fact, for instance, that they need to provide a clear, measurable framework whilst being flexible and alterable in the light of changing circumstances – or that they need, at the same time, to be both elevating (to give challenge and incentive) and feasible (to provide support and prevent demoralisation resulting from failure). Goals need to provide scope for individual and team development whilst enabling organisational tasks to be achieved.

It is too much to expect that goals will always be clearly identified. Social, economic and political factors may cause sudden changes or force change upon organisations continuously and relentlessly. Team goals should be the foundation for team activities, but major external changes can cause subsidence. Changes in organisational strategy and customer demand may also create sources of uncertainty. Even the work methods followed by teams are not invulnerable to change and uncertainty; technological changes are radically altering the means by which the ends are attained. All organisations are changing or being changed. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, 'Everything is in a state of flux', and the rate of flux has been very fast in recent decades. So, it may be particularly difficult for teams to set and follow clear goals when they are besieged by external changes.

It is not always easy to distinguish between goals and objectives. Goals usually relate to organisational strategy and reflect a longish term direction for the team. Objectives help to break down these goals into specific, achievable, measurable areas. In this way, objectives point the way to the implementation of strategic goals. There is a comparable problem in the overlap between team goals and the definition and planning of the detailed activities and targets which will be necessary to ensure that the team's task is achieved. Within a framework of commonly-held, over-arching goals, the staff and managers of any dynamic organisation have to develop the capacity for moving beyond a rather mechanistic notion of setting goals and specifying tasks, to a much more fluid way of operating on the basis of having a wide and shifting range of goals within an equally wide and shifting range of teams and purposes.

In this way, when setting appropriate team goals it is important to acknowledge the function of these team goals in mediating between organisational goals on the one hand and individual goals on the other. It is useful to bear in mind that team members have individual goals and hidden agendas. So team members who comply with team goals may agree with them to a greater or lesser extent. Members may secretly disagree with team goals but comply with them for their own reasons. They may need the job to pay the mortgage or they may use the team as a 'can-opener' to further their organisational ambitions. So, there is a crucial political dimension to goals, and a key area to manage in teamwork is the potential clash between team goals and the team members' goals. Team leaders and champions of team ideas should be aware of the concerns and individual goals of less enthusiastic members. More generally, for team effectiveness, it is important that the goals are: achievable; amenable to evaluation; and agreed with, or at least understood by, the team members and their sponsors, whether internal or external to the organisation.

Another approach to assisting teams in accomplishing their tasks is provided by the recent resurgence of interest in extending the autonomy of teams and work groups. In very general terms, this means that the wider employing organisation specifies the required outcomes and the resources available. Within this framework, teams have varying degrees of freedom to determine how to allocate tasks and responsibilities. In some ways, a production environment lends itself most readily to such an approach to teamworking, but the practice is being explored across all industries and sectors at the present time. The process of decentralisation within many departments of both central and local government and the creation of 'internal markets' and systems of contracting within former state bureaucracies are all rooted in such an approach to teams and tasks. Such moves are often associated with the values of empowerment.

There is an enormous variation in the forms of flexible teamworking that exist. On the one hand there are teams with a fairly traditional team leader or project manager who consults with his or her assorted staff about how to achieve a task. On the other hand, there are self-directed or self-managed working groups, in which 'everyone is a manager', and which function with a high level of internal and external autonomy.