Document created: 15 September 03
Air University Review, November-December 1975

Management by Objectives

Can It Be Used To Improve Management of Air Force Units?

Major David W. Krahenbuhl

MUCH has been written about a management technique called Management by Objectives (MBO). MBO has been suggested as a management system by which to organize the sprawling bureaucracy of the federal government. Management by Objectives programs are presently being used in many corporations involving thousands of people and billions of dollars worth of assets.1 This widespread use of MBO is causing more and more military managers to ask how this technique can be related to their own units and their management problems. Consequently, a relevant question for all Air Force managers has evolved: Can Management by Objectives be used to improve the management of Air Force units?

In my opinion, the answer is definitely yes. The purpose of this article is to substantiate the answer in detail.

What Is MBO? How Does It Work?

No wonder so many people are confused—Management by Objectives covers a wide spectrum of thought. When speaking of MBO, one person may be discussing a system to manage the federal government while another may think of MBO as the process by which an individual sets personal development goals. They would both be right. MBO can encompass any goal-setting procedure, from a highly structured corporate profit-target system to an individual’s unstructured career plan.

MBO defined

This article will use the term “Management by Objectives” to refer to a structured management technique of setting goals for any organizational unit. George S. Odiorne, in his book Management by Objectives, defined this concept as “a system of management whereby the superior and subordinate jointly identify objectives, define individual major areas of responsibility in terms of results expected, and use these objectives and expected results as guides for operating the unit and assessing the contribution of each of its members.”2

Examining a few key words will ensure better understanding of Odiorne’s definition of Management by Objectives. First, he points out that MBO is a “system of management,” an overall framework used to guide the organizational unit and outline its direction. Then he points out that “the superior and subordinate jointly identify objectives”; in other words, it is a participative management procedure that requires commitment and cooperation. Third, the definition deals with identifying the “results” that are expected; thus MBO concentrates on the output of the organization, evaluating people by assessing their contribution to this output.

the MBO process

To understand how MBO can be applied, it is necessary to look at the parts of the process. MBO can be divided into multiple steps in many combinations, but for the purpose of this article three steps will be discussed: organization objective setting, manager objective setting, and objective review.

Organization Objective Setting. This step requires the top managers of an organization to review the purpose for which the organization exists. In the military, this may require a review of the mission statement and a discussion of its meaning. This is an important requirement, for periodic review re-emphasizes the continuing need for the existence of the organization. With this mission in mind, the commander or supervisor and his staff must then set organizational objectives in areas where the unit will concentrate its efforts during the approaching objective-setting period. These objectives are (1) to provide direction to the entire organization and (2) to provide guidelines for subordinate-level managers to formulate their objectives.3 As a result of this organizational objective-setting step, Air Force managers should realize that a mission statement is a goal that defines the continuing purpose of an organization. That mission statement, however, does not define specific methods of accomplishing the goal stated. MBO helps formulate these specific methods that are necessary to accomplish the mission.

Manager Objective Setting. Each individual manager (e.g., OIC, NCOIC) in the organization must now determine the objectives for his shop or office. This procedure takes place in three general steps: identifying key result areas, writing objectives, and negotiating with the boss.

First, the manager must identify the key result areas of responsibility that are assigned to this unit.4 In other words, just as the commander reviewed the whole organization in order to set organizational objectives, the manager reviews his part of the organization in order to set his objectives. It is important for the individual office or shop manager to identify the areas of his unit where most of the results are obtained. He will usually find that 20 percent of his area of responsibility will produce 80 percent of his results. It is important that he identify and zero in on these key result areas for MBO to be effective.

After a manager has identified his key areas of responsibility, he is ready to sit down and write his objectives. The main criteria that he should remember in writing objectives are that they should be specific, measurable, realistic, and results-oriented.5 They should be specific in that there can be no confusion about what is expected. They must be measurable for later accountability. They must be realistic but still challenging. The objectives should be results-oriented, concentrating on the output of the organization and not on its internal activities or procedures.

After the manager’s objectives have been written, he enters the participative management phase of this technique. The subordinate manager sits down with his boss and they agree on the subordinate’s objectives. This requires a realistic commitment on the part of both individuals. The agreement on the objective signifies the approval of the expected results (output) required of the subordinate. Progress toward these results can now be pursued by the subordinate until the requirement is reached or the goal is changed.

Objective Review. After the setting of objectives has been agreed upon by the officer or NCO manager and his boss, the stage is set for managing by these objectives. This managing process is the responsibility of the subordinate manager, and it is interrupted only by mutually arranged, formal review sessions with the commander. In other words, MBO requires that each individual have the freedom to perform a well-defined task without interference.

There are two types of objective reviews—intermediate and final.6 The purpose of the intermediate review is to determine progress and identify problems that stand in the way of accomplishing objectives. Most problems are not foreseeable at the time objectives are written; they appear only when action is taken to accomplish the objectives. The result of this intermediate session should be either to agree on a plan that resolves the blockage of objective accomplishment or to change the objectives. 

The final review is to determine objective accomplishment. In this session the subordinate’s objectives are reviewed for the entire period. In addition, the session concentrates on the renewal of the objective-setting cycle by establishing a basis from which to plan the objectives for the next period. The superior gains an additional benefit from this session since it provides him with inputs on which to evaluate the subordinate’s performance.7 If the focus of the session is on the objectives and it does not break down into personal recrimination of the individual, then the review will be a true appraisal of performance, not personality.

Can MBO Adapt to the Military 

Now that the MBO process has been reviewed, questions of specific, military application may still exist. An examination of the major issues in applying this process to a military environment with military managers should help answer these questions.

authoritative vs. participative management

The military organization is developed on a framework of authoritative management. The Uniform Code of Military Justice provides the vehicle for a commander to take precise disciplinary action in situations involving his subordinates. Uniforms and ranks are always clearly visible to the subordinate, constantly reminding him of his position in this authoritative structure. Such examples are numerous, and each seems to indicate that an authoritative style of management would be the only style that could exist in this military environment.

However, the military manager accomplishes his mission like any other manager—by adjusting his style of management to a given situation. The vast variety of management situations in the Air Force naturally calls for different management styles, and today’s modern, sophisticated leaders are adjusting to this need. For example, a fighter squadron probably would not be managed with the same techniques as a headquarters staff office. Thus it is recognized that, even though the Air Force functions within an authoritative framework, requirements for other management styles do exist and are being used. Therefore, a management style such as the participative style of MBO can be adapted to many of these military situations.

Definition of Output. Another major issue in applying MBO to a military situation is the definition of output.8 It may be argued that the ultimate output of any military organization cannot be quantified—How do you measure the utility of national defense? Even though the output of some military organizations cannot be easily measured, the requirement for objectives is still evident.

For example, a staff office responsible for formulating policy will have an ultimate effect on the mission, even though this effect is difficult to measure. This does not detract from the need to establish meaningful objectives. Such an objective might be to review a unit’s training policy and to make any necessary changes within 60 days. By setting such a precise objective, definition would have been given to the unit’s output.

Dynamic Atmosphere. One of the key principles upon which the Air Force is founded is flexibility. The ability to change and adapt is a key to the accomplishment of the Air Force mission. Can a management system of structured objectives exist in the dynamic atmosphere of the Air Force without reducing this flexibility? The answer is emphatically yes, because, in an environment of continual change, planning and direction become even more important ‘than in other management situations. If these management techniques are not used, the situation soon deteriorates into one of strictly reactionary management. A reactionary situation, where managing is done by demands of the in-basket and telephone, completely ignores the results that are required of an organization. Furthermore, reactionary management gives little evaluation of the activities pursued and gives few indications of their importance to the output.

How Can MBO Be Implemented 
in an Air Force Unit?

It is evident, then, that the basic concept of the MBO technique is simple—deceptively simple. Implementing the technique is far from being simple. Organizational managers must be aware of some essential requirements of MBO to assure a successful implementation.

Setting the Mood. The most important ingredient in the implementation of a unit MBO program is the creation of a subordinate-centered participative management atmosphere. Such an atmosphere must consciously and diligently be created by the boss. However, this does not mean that the boss relinquishes control of his subordinates. Participation is defined as “mental and emotional involvement of a person in a group situation which encourages him to contribute to group goals and share responsibility in them.”9 This mental and emotional involvement does not usurp power from the chain of command.

Commitment: The atmosphere desired for MBO is built from mutual trust and commitment. Subordinates must be given the opportunity to formulate their own objectives. Objectives that are forced upon them by well-meaning bosses will not insure the subordinate commitment that is necessary to accomplish the program successfully.

Integrity: In addition, this atmosphere requires that there be complete integrity in the superior-subordinate communications regarding the formulation of subordinate objectives. There can be no changes of objectives or objective-measuring systems without the agreement of both the superior and subordinate. In other words, MBO dictates that there can be no surprises or misunderstandings about the original meaning of objectives when they are reviewed for accomplishment at the end of the MBO cycle.10

Education. Thorough knowledge of MBO theory and methods is ultimately important for all participants. If education is confined to a flashy handout or a superficial briefing, the MBO program will fail. Time and effort are needed to discuss the implications of the program thoroughly and to then practice the skills that are required. Objective writing, objective setting, and objective reviewing all demand a learning process and a practice session before application to a real situation. All of this takes time and trouble. Even though the demands of MBO education are taxing, commitment to thorough knowledge and training for the entire unit will be rewarded in time saved and results achieved in the operation of a successful Management by Objectives program.

Administration. Assistance must be available during the implementation of the program. Air Force managers are already busy, so the administrative procedures of the program must be kept to a minimum.

MBO Monitors: Young officers with recent management training could help administer the program by filling the role of MBO advisers or specialists. Operating at various levels within the organization, they could monitor and coordinate the entire program. Since one of the most important elements of efficient administration of an MBO program is adhering closely to the time schedule, these specialists could assure that the commander’s agenda was met by all participants.

Minimal Paperwork: Objectives are a personal agreement between superior and subordinate; no one else needs a copy of these objectives. In fact, the objectives may be handwritten. Managers should not get caught in the usual red tape of administration.

Few Objectives: One of the best ways to keep administration procedures to a minimum is to concentrate only on a few objectives. Remember that objectives are improvement goals and should not be formulated for each routine responsibility; objectives should concentrate on the key results desired.

Length of Time To Implement. Implementation of this management procedure will require patience from the commander. Overnight results are not to be expected. It takes several MBO cycles to firmly establish this program and in some cases to produce realistic objectives. Implementation time varies, depending upon the degree of change required in the supervisor’s management style, the difficulty of creating the participative atmosphere, etc. Patience and commitment to MBO will be needed.

Changing the Guard. What happens when one or more of the top supervisors are rotated? MBO can actually be a benefit in this situation. New supervisors should be required to operate under their predecessor’s objectives for a few months until they get their feet on the ground. Then, after they are properly trained, they can sit down with the boss and negotiate their own objectives. This procedure promotes continuity within the unit and cuts down on the “new regime” concept.

Tailor-Made Management. One of MBO’S principal advantages is that it can be tailored to fit units of different sizes and compositions. Exactly how the program is designed is an individual decision, depending upon a unit’s circumstances.

For example, one decision to be reached is the frequency of objective reviews. The time between review sessions will depend on the dynamics of the management situation. The greater the potential for changes in the management environment, the shorter the review period will need to be. Quarterly reviews appear to be ideal in many management situations, although some military managers feel that monthly reviews will be required for their particular organization. As with all other aspects of MBO, one may choose the most pragmatic approach to fit his unit situation.

Human Relations Problems. The implementation of MBO will meet with the normal resistance to change that greets any new proposal. In addition, probably the most serious problem that the manager will face is the feeling from some subordinates that MBO is a manipulative device. These subordinates will feel that MBO exists to demand greater output from them. If the superior is insensitive to this reaction and does not dispel it in the objective-setting session, then he can only expect low-performance objectives from these individuals.

Where To Begin. At what level of the organization does MBO start? The answer is at any level. The only requirement to start an MBO program in a specific unit is agreement with the boss.11 There is no demand that any other level above the initiating office implement a program first. If all higher military echelons need an MBO program before the lower level unit can begin, the program will be greatly delayed. MBO can really be started at any level within the organization.

WHAT ARE the real advantages of Management by Objectives in an Air Force organization? First, MBO improves planning. It requires that an organization and its supervisors think ahead. Second, it directs the activity of the organization toward the desired output. MBO ties the individual efforts of the unit’s personnel to the defined objectives of the organization. Third, it increases communication within the organization. It requires that the superior and the subordinate periodically discuss their progress toward obtaining desired objectives in key areas of responsibility. A fourth advantage lies in the fact that Management by Objectives aids in the performance evaluation of individual supervisors. This technique concentrates on performance criteria for evaluation rather than on behavioral trait criteria.

Even with these advantages, MBO must be examined realistically. This technique is not a panacea for all management ills; it will not solve all of management’s problems. In addition, successful MBO implementation is not easy. It requires that the manager understand sophisticated, modern management theory. He must be able to create a participative management atmosphere within his organization in order for MBO to operate. MBO definitely requires commitment from the participants. Conclusively, MBO is a welding technique that joins personnel-centered management to results-centered management.

Considering these elements, can Management by Objectives be used to improve management of Air Force units? The author’s answer is yes, but the ultimate answer to that question can only come from Air Force managers.

Air Command and Staff College


1. “EPD Leads the Thirteen ‘Most Popular’ Management Techniques,” Administrative Management, June 1973, p. 25.

2. George S. Odiorne, Management by Objectives (New York: Pitman, 1965), p. 55.

3. Peter F. Drucker, The Practice of Management (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), p. 63.

4. G. I. Morrisey, Management by Objectives and Results (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1970), p. 21.

5. Pamphlet, AFCMD 178-2, “Management by Objectives/Results” (Kirtland AFB, New Mexico: AFCMD, 30 August 1974). pp. 3-5.

6. Stephen J. Carroll, Jr., and Henry L. Tosi, Jr., Management by Objectives, Applications and Research (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 89.

7. Ibid., p. 112.

8. Keith Davis, Human Behavior at Work, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), p. 136.

9. AFCMD 178-2, pp. 3-15.

10. Richardson J. Johnson, “Management by Objectives—a Proven Method of Reaching Agreement,” AF Civil Engineer, August 1973, p. 15.

11. Ibid.


Major David W. Krahenbuhl (M.S., University of North Dakota) is a procurement staff officer, Hq USAF. He has been a missile crew commander as well as an Assistant Professor of Economics and Management at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He served as Director of Research, Contract Management Division, Air Force Systems Command, where he was involved in the initiation of a Management by Objectives program. Major Krahenbuhl is a Distinguished Graduate of Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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