The 9 most popular arguments for targets deconstructed

Okay, so we know targets are bad

Hundreds of researchers, academics, bloggers, psychologists, managers, more bloggers,  statisticians  authors have written about the damage caused by targets. It isn’t an abstract problem, targets can kill. But politicians, civil servants, managers, HR people, consultants and pundits all over the world think they know better.

People continue to argue targets have their place.

What are their arguments?

The 9 Most popular arguments deconstructed

Arguments used by your Nanna

This is what anyone would say – your mum, dad, aunties, uncles, people down the pub, journalists, politicians, think tank people and civil servants.

1. It’s common sense

Setting targets is common sense. But, as Julian Baggini says in this book on bad arguments, appealing to common sense is a sort of exasperation, something seems so obviously true to us that we don’t think it is worth explaining why. It’s just lazy. Invoking common sense is really a shorthand way of saying we think something is obviously true or false. It is misleading because it implies a universal standard of rationality. Saying it is just common sense is a way of shifting responsibility for having to explain why we think what we do onto some mythical judge of ordinary reason. And yet we know that science repeatedly confounds common sense.

2. I don’t believe it

Some people just don’t believe that targets always make performance worse. This argument basically says that because you can’t imagine something is true, it isn’t. As Julian Baggini says, someone’s inability to imagine that something is or is not the case, is not in itself a reason to think it is or not the case. Some true things are simply unimaginable. The fact that we have strong convictions does not mean that something is true. When you are confronted by the belief argument, you should give up. You can only counter this argument by allowing the other person to see and experience the effects of targets.

3. Yes, but you have to strike a balance

You have to strike a balance between having too many targets and no targets at all. A happy medium. People love to be reasonable. Striking a balance makes the person who is attempting to strike it appear a reasonable sort of person. Who wants to be unbalanced? After you have looked at the pros and cons and understood the competing arguments, you should balance them out, yes?  But when someone strikes a balance, they rarely say what balance has to be struck and why. Instead, they throw this phrase in as the final justification. It allows someone to come into a discussion and own new midway territory between two competing positions. Talk of balance can be reassuring when actually, what is needed is a radical rebalancing of priorities. No balancing is required when the scales come down firmly on one side. In short, striking a balance is woolly and platitudinous, neither ideal when you are dealing with a statistical reality. Fewer targets, just like a little bit of ham for a vegetarian, is still the wrong thing to do.

Arguments used by experts

These arguments are made by the people who reckon they know something; the HR people, managers, consultants, management journalists, performance management officers and the armchair pundits. I’ve paraphrased the list below from this book.

4. Targets motivate people

Correct, they do, but they motivate people only to meet the target, not achieve the purpose. The target becomes the de facto purpose, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the system.

5. Targets make people accountable

Yes, they do, but for meeting the target and for doing whatever is within their means to meet it or be seen to meet it,  including cheating and lying.

6. The alternative is ambiguity and fudge

Systems thinkers know that using real measures to understand whether purpose has been achieved is anything but ambiguity and fudge. It is the height of clarity and utility. Imposing targets on people will encourage the fudging of results and increase ambiguity because no one has a clue what is really going on.

7. Targets enable comparison

Yes, if  comparing one lot of lies against another floats your boat.

8. The alternative is anarchy

No, replacing targets with measures allows much better control. Performance becomes visible to everyone. There is nowhere for people to hide. Anarchy exists with an absence of authority. If you use measures that relate to purpose, the new authority becomes the customer and what matters to them. The individual worker is freer, yes, but freer to use their ingenuity to solve problems instead of to cheat the system.

9. Targets are okay if you do them right

Impossible. All numerical targets in hierarchies, without exception, cause jiggery pokery, make liars and pretenders out of good people, tell you nothing about reality, waste money, make staff  focus on the wrong things and give the customer a properly bad service.  No human has yet discovered a way to set a numerical target in a hierarchy that improves performance. See Chapter 7, ‘An Irrational Belief in Targets’ of this book for more on why the common methods used by managers to set targets are all flawed and will lead to poor performance. If you are going to set a target, you might as well use my random target generator. It would be exactly as scientific.

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11 Responses to The 9 most popular arguments for targets deconstructed

  1. Agreed. I’d be interested in reading a post about the alternative. What are your ideas on measures and what an orientation to impact looks like in business practice?

  2. Good question. This post by Simon Guilfoyle, a police inspector, answers the question better than I could.

  3. Pingback: Bring out your dead they are alive! « Calchas

  4. My instincts and experience, e.g. in schools, tell me that targets are bad but my current employer runs their business tightly on a whole range of metrics and have 20+ years of profitable growth. That may not be cause and effect but it does give pause for thought as real-world examples are always better than theory.

  5. I agree, as long as we don’t dogmatically throw the metrics away at the same time thinking them to be the same. I am big fan of purpose.

  6. Pingback: Ministers blame workers for system dysfunction created by Ministers @perfect_flow @Medici_Manager | Carlo Favaretti

  7. John Seddon ‘nails it’ in this presentation “targets make organisations worse and controlling, or managing costs, actually makes them higher…cultural change is free”

  8. This is body armour against performance people. Thanks!

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