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Subjective Objectives
Business Analysis Core Concept Model (BACCM)

By Julian Sammy, EBA  
 
1.0 Subjective Objectives
 
It's not the problems you know about that cause the most trouble. It's the problems you don't see coming.
In this article, we consider the nature of the word 'objective', and attempt to answer the question, 'Are Objectives Objective?' This leads us into several significant implications, from the organizational level right down to the way you practice business analysis.
 
.1 Subjective, Objective, and Objectives
 
The BACCM Overview (BA Connection Newsletter, November 2012) notes that the Business Analysis Core Concept Model was defined as an empirical, behavioural model.
  • Empirical: We looked for evidence to describe each Core Concept, and then reasoned from that evidence to create simple, useful definitions.
  • Behavioural: Definitions focus on the best available evidence about actual human behaviour, rather than philosophical, moral, ethical, or economic beliefs about our behaviour.
This approach was particularly important when defining need, solution, and value, because these core concepts represent relationships that people have to things. In other words, these core concepts are subjective.
  • subjective (adjective): based on or influenced by beliefs, personal feelings, tastes, expectations, or opinions.
The subjective nature of value means it must always be defined for a stakeholder and in a context. Needs and solutions are constrained the same way.
 
Note that 'subjective' doesn't mean 'immeasurable' or 'unquantifiable'. Value is a measure of importance, and the value of any two things can always be compared, if the context and the stakeholder are known. (Value can be thought of as a partially ordered set, for the mathematically inclined.) Of course, some evaluations are more useful than others. 
 
Another clarification: 'subjective' is sometimes confused with 'unreal' or 'illusory'. In terms of the BACCM, value, needs, and solutions describe an interaction between a thing, a stakeholder, and a context. The nature of the interaction is not necessarily the same from person to person (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), but the subjective experience is still real (beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder); the thing, the stakeholder, and the context are all objectively real:
  • objective (adjective): independent of beliefs, personal feelings, tastes, expectations, or opinions; not subjective; unbiased, impartial.
 
Stakeholders, changes, and contexts describe things that are relevant to the business analyst and the organization. (In many cases, relevance can be objectively determined: the person who controls the budget is a stakeholder, no matter your opinion. In those cases where relevance is a value judgement, these core concepts are tainted with subjectivity to the extent that we can choose what we care about. The people, events, and surroundings are still objectively real, even if they are considered irrelevant.)
 
Based on the listings in EtymOnline.com, the modern meanings of 'objective' emerged in the 1850s. The adjective form was used to mean 'unbiased, impartial' in 1855; in 1852 the military term 'objective point' emerged as a noun, and by 1881 the modern meaning was in use:
  • objective (noun): a thing aimed at or sought; a goal.
Having these two distinct definitions does mean we can ask a strange question.
 
.2 Are Objectives Objective? (y/n)
 
Today, organizations tend to use a more specific definition for 'objective', and differentiate between goals and objectives. (Organizations also tend to ignore the adjective form.) For example, A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide) defines an objective as "a target or metric that a person or organization seeks to meet to progress towards a goal", and a goal as "a state or condition the business must satisfy to reach its vision." (For a more detailed exploration of these concepts, take a look at the Business Motivation Model (BMM) from the Business Rules Group. Pages 7-9 are a good place to start.)
 
Objectives are referenced throughout the BABOK® Guide v2, but a significant discussion occurs on pages 83-84, in the Enterprise Analysis task 5.1 Define Business Need. The element 5.1.4.1 Business Goals and Objectives notes that SMART objectives are a common way to "make it possible to objectively assess if the objective has been achieved". SMART is an acronym for:
  • Specific – describing something that has an observable outcome
  • Measurable – tracking and measuring the outcome
  • Achievable – testing the feasibility of the effort
  • Relevant – in alignment with the organization’s key vision, mission, goals
  • Time-bounded – the objective has a defined timeframe that is consistent with the business need
This appears to answer the question posed above: if SMART objectives can be assessed objectively, objectives must be objective.
 
But consider where goals and objectives fit in the Business Analyst Core Concept Model. The BABOK® Guide v2 makes it clear that objectives are requirements, by the BACCM definition: objectives define a business need so it can be acted on; they are usable representations of a need.
 
But needs are, at least in part, subjective; they are always experienced by a stakeholder in a context. Requirements — and therefore objectives — must also have a subjective element.
 
This means the first, obvious answer to the question, 'Are objectives objective?' is not even wrong, because the question is not valid. A better question is: 'What aspects of an objective are objective, and what aspects of the objective are subjective?"
 
.3 Subjective and Objective Objectives
 
In the BACCM, needs quantify and qualify the potential value of a thing; solutions are things that deliver value. Stakeholders are motivated to act based on potential value — to fulfill a need — and benefit from that action through a solution. Value can be used to describe two things:
  • benefits that will result from some action, such as payment for work done.
  • motivations that provoke a person to act in the first place, such as the desire to have relationships, or have an effect on the world.
Benefits may be subjective or objective, but motivations are subjective. (This is a simplification for the purposes of this discussion; the relationships between these concepts are complex and recursive, and can fill many pages. For this discussion, don't go down that rabbit-hole.)
 
If we use SMART as the attributes of an objective, one attribute is not like the others: SMA and T don't require a value judgement, but relevance does. An organization's vision, mission, and goals are all supposed to describe why the organization exists. (The 'Business Motivation Model' was not named accidentally.)
 
This hidden factor — the subjective objective — causes us to make a dangerous error when defining SMART objectives. We forget to ask, 'relevant to whom?' and 'relevant in what context?' We assume we know the context for the objective and the stakeholders who care about it — and we are frequently wrong.
 
.4 Implications
 
In practice, organizations struggle to maintain alignment to the organizational motivators — its vision, mission, and goals. In many organizations no one really knows what the organizational motivators are; they don't know why the organization exists. In others, organizational motivators are just words, and have no effect on the way the organization operates. Worse, it is common to find measures of success and rewards that directly oppose organizational motivators.
 
Even in organizations where the organizational motivators are touchstones for every employee (like Disney, Amazon, Google, and Apple), misalignments grow exponentially. Consider a big organization with five levels of objectives between the organizational goals and a small development team. At each level, the objectives are 85% aligned to the level above — not great but it doesn't sound too bad. Unfortunately, the misalignment suffers from compound interest, and the team at the bottom is only 44% aligned to the organizational motivators.
 
This is not just a thought experiment. Most objectives are motivated by concerns that are much more immediate than the organizational vision, mission, and goals: local sales targets, limited opportunities for promotion, or service-level agreements, regulators, auditors, standards bodies, new market trends, or... The list of local goals is enormous, and because they are local, they tend to carry much more weight than a distant, abstract vision. This provides a strong motive for local optimizations — solutions that increase in value to a small portion of the organization, and decrease in value in the organization as a whole.
 
Even small organizations that use their organizational motivators as touchstones in every decision — even they can find themselves groaning and straining against the burden that fragmentation brings. Change becomes increasingly difficult, expensive, risky, and time consuming. Interdepartmental communication and coordination breaks down. In some cases, different parts of the organization may attempt to fulfil the organizational motivators in contradictory ways, and erode the value of the organization as a whole.
 
.5 Action! Define Wise Objectives
 
It is important for objectives to be SMART—but it's not enough. 'Wise' isn't a fancy acronym; it means "having or showing experience, knowledge, and good judgment." Whether you are defining objectives or having them handed to you, understanding subjective objectives gives you options that other people don't have.
 
.5.1 If You Are Given Objectives...
 
If you are one of the stakeholders who is handed objectives — SMART or otherwise — you are probably not in a position to make significant changes to those objectives, let alone the goals those objectives define. You are in a position to ask questions about who will be affected by the objective, as part of elicitation and validation of requirements. Who will gain from this objective? Who will lose?
 
Before you start to question the person who wrote the objective, remind yourself that they are probably just like you: doing their best without enough time or information or recognition or help. Be gentle with your probing. 
Asking a senior person to validate part of your work is often a non-confrontational path to helping that person discover gaps and misalignments. For example, imagine you work in a large company, in the IT Support Group. IT Support is part of Technology Development, which is part of the Operations Division. Operations employs about a third of the Organization. 
 
A Senior Business Analyst (SBA) in the Technology Development group has worked out an objective, and passes it to you for the next phase of requirements development. It seems clear to you that the objective is a bad one: your group and most of the stakeholders you know about will see this as a loss. 
 
You contact the SBA to ask for some help filling out a draft Context / Stakeholder for the objective. The diagram includes the organizational structure you are a part of, along with other stakeholders you know about. When you meet, the SBA helps you label each relationship as a 'gain' or a 'loss' for that stakeholder. You discover that there are more stakeholders than you knew about, and that many of them will see the objective representing a loss to avoid. You also discover that the most important stakeholders — the Organization and Tier 1 Customers — will see a gain in value. 
 
Seen in this context, the objective appears to be worth pursuing (as long as the change management effort is feasible). Now imagine the same situation, but the gains and losses are reversed. You begin by seeing the objective as a gain for customers and all the groups you normally interact with. After talking to the SBA, he/she will realize that the objective represents real harm to the organization. Without a confrontation, you have raised an alarm to the person who needs to take responsibility for the problem.
 
.5.2 If You Define Objectives...
 
When you start developing objectives, find a way to define the stakeholders who expect a change in value if the objective is fulfilled. Depending on your position and how structured your organization is, you may be required to put this information in a supporting document. If you do separate the stakeholders from the objective, find a way to ensure the people who must act on the objective know who will see it as a loss, and who will see it as a gain. 
 
Knowing the stakeholders will go a long way to establishing the context for the objective, particularly if you include organizational units in the stakeholder list. You can also benefit by aligning the objective to goals two levels up: the immediate goal, and to the goal above that.
 
.6 Conclusion
 
Objectives are a powerful tool for provoking and pursuing organizational change, but it is not enough to make an objective SMART. Useful objectives should be wise, too, and account for the subjective nature of 'relevance'. Whether you are defining objectives or trying to meet them, you have the ability — and the responsibility — to ensure those objectives are as good as they can be.