Testing Objectives

Ask yourself whether your objectives meet the characteristics of useful objectives for decision making. Objectives should be complete, controllable, concise, measurable, and understandable (adapted from Keeney, 1992 and McDaniels, 2000).

Complete – A well-defined set of objectives includes “everything that matters” in making the decision. This means all the environmental, social and economic outcomes that may be affected by the decision. To know whether your objectives are complete, you need to consider the range of alternatives under consideration. When you start developing a recovery plan for mountain caribou, you may discover that a key means of creating habitat for mountain caribou is prescribed burning (planned burning of forested areas). This may lead you to have an objective related to the impacts of such activities on neighboring communities (loss of tourism income for example, resulting from poor air quality), something you might not have initially considered.

Controllable – This means that the objectives include only those endpoints that can be influenced by the decision at hand (the range of options under consideration).

Concise – The set of objectives should ensure that all the important consequences can be described with the fewest possible objectives and criteria, with no redundancy or double counting. Similar objectives are grouped together by creating sub-objectives that define the components of the general objectives. This hierarchical structure helps to simplify evaluation.

Measurable – Objectives themselves do not need to be measurable, but they do need to be conceptually clear enough that measures or evaluation criteria can be later defined.

Understandable – Keep them simple – just the thing that matters and the direction it should move in. Use commonly understood terms rather than scientific jargon. Anything further is a source of potential debate and misunderstanding. Bear in mind however that many objectives are only made understandable through the use of sub-objectives and eventually specific evaluation criteria. For example, “Conserve Biodiversity” is clearly stated, but may be interpreted in dramatically different ways unless it is more clearly defined by lower level objectives and specific evaluation criteria that define how biodiversity is to be understood in this decision context.

Test them against hypothetical but plausible alternatives

The real litmus test of whether objectives are useful is whether they will help you evaluate, compare and choose among the alternatives you are considering. At this stage of the process you may not have detailed alternatives worked out, but you must at least identify the broad range of alternatives that are likely to be under consideration.

  • Brainstorm a list of alternatives under consideration. You don’t have to work out the details, but you do need to cover the full range of possible action.
  • Sketch out a rough consequence table (objectives by alternatives matrix)
  • Ask yourself: “In choosing among these alternatives, are these the things that matter? Is anything missing?”
  • For each alternative consider: “What would others be concerned about if I were to tell them that we had selected this alternative?”
  • In sum, ask yourself: “If I collect information about the impacts of these alternatives on these objectives, using the proposed evaluation criteria (i.e., imagine the consequence table filled with data, text or plusses and minuses in each cell), would we have all the information we would need to make this decision?”

Some Tips

  • Don’t prioritize objectives! Meaningful choices can only be made on the basis of specific trade-offs, not general objectives.
  • Different objectives will suit different decision problems. What is a means in one decision may be a fundamental objective in another. It depends on what other decisions have already been made, and whether you are making a broad strategic decision, or a specific operational or tactical one.
  • For a given decision, or class of decisions, well thought out objectives normally remain relatively stable over time.
  • Objectives should not be limited by data availability (evaluation criteria on the other hand, may be).
  • Watch out for moving too quickly to the easy objectives and ignoring the ones that are hard to define
  • Don’t try to get it perfect the first time. Get a quick list and then test them with some sample alternatives. As you think about the alternatives and what their pros and cons are, you will come up with more objectives.

Key Ideas

  • Objectives should be complete, controllable, concise, measurable, and understandable
  • Objectives are useful if they help you compare and choose between alternatives
  • Don’t prioritize objectives! Meaningful choices can only be made on the basis of specific trade-offs, not general objectives.