So many people often say to me “Alan, we know what we have to do. We have to tighten up some controls in a few areas, and create some strong targets to make sure people are doing what we need them to do!”

I find myself asking why they need to tighten these controls, set these targets, measure the performance. There may have been shallow attempts to find out why the staff are not doing what they need to be doing, but then – in typical command and control style – a hammer is wielded to say that there is now a new target, with strict controls, and failure to meet said target will result in X.

X might be to stand in the naughty corner, or get a written warning, or having to have a pow-wow with the boss about how things aren’t being delivered.

If I can’t measure, I can’t manage – say the managers.

You don’t need to manage, managers. You need to lead. You need to act on your organisation, for your people.

Why do we have measures and targets then?

Good question! Most organisations will rattle off a few examples of this:

  • Targets provide a direction

The interesting part about working towards something is that the ‘something’ is not usually the right thing. When people are given a target to work toward (eg. “5 new sales this week”) they will do whatever it will take to hit that target. If they don’t hit the target, it means they have to spend more time in the naughty corner, so they will do whatever it takes to hit that target. That means they are doing less of what is important for the customers – like delivering a working widget – and more time hitting a manager-derived number.

  • Targets motivate people do to ‘the things’

This is the more interesting of the two responses, as if you need to motivate your staff to do ‘the things’, you likely have a much larger problem than not hitting a target. People inherently want to do a good job, and no one goes to work saying ‘I am going to deliberately screw it all up today’. People will act in odd ways to hit that number that has been set though… sometimes bad ways that could end in calamity for the whole organisation.

In general, targets cause people to do more bad, and less good. Examples of this include:

  • They take attention away from the delivery of real work for customers
  • They create incentive for people to act in a way that is likely not delivering the right things to customers
  • They actually cost an organisation money to implement and monitor, since labour is not free
  • They allow managers to shirk their duties by putting a measure or target in the place of true leadership
  • They will make your people feel bad when they don’t hit the number

So we need to set better targets!

Bzzt, sorry but the answer to that is no.

Better targets are still targets, and even with better ones we have failed to understand why it is that the things aren’t meeting expectations. These better targets are also often set without knowledge of customer requirements – and anything that our people are working toward that isn’t in service of the customer is taking away from servicing the customer.

Stronger, better targets also typically lead to stronger, better bureaucracy to manage the targets and their enforcement. Which leads to further resources being consumed in the mission to measure the people hitting their targets.

The wanton need to make people do the stuff managers might want them to do sits squarely in the command and control camp. And because that decision to have people act in a particular way is also made away from understanding the customer needs directly, it’s nearly always wrong.

So what should we do instead?

Well, that is another article in itself. The main thing to always return to when thinking about targets and how to measure them is to reframe them in a customer’s voice. If you aren’t able to, it is probably not the right thing to be doing.

Never forget to ask why – truly why – staff aren’t able to do what it is you’re asking of them. It might be something that can be acted on systemically instead, leading to everyone being able to do more good for customers.

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