In a lunch I had recently, the conversation turned to the fact that my lunch companion was a self-admitted ‘goal setter’.  He felt he had to set objectives for everything he did and always got a sense of achievement out of meeting each and every one.  The way in which he described it though, also made it sound as if he felt it was as much a weakness as a strength.  This got me to thinking whether quantitative targets are always a positive thing.

There is no doubt that objectives, targets and KPIs etc are of significant benefit.  We are encouraged to make sure our objectives are SMART, i.e. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant/Realistic and Time Bound.  This helps to provide focus and drive. However, I would contend that there are times when organisations or departments should more heavily weight rewards for needed behaviours, then once right behaviours are achieved, outcomes can be more heavily rewarded.  As an example, a target can be something like: ‘Produce 90 Heats of Steel per day in the QBOP mill’.  However, this may neglect upstream inputs and downstream bottlenecks if behaviours aren’t collaborative.  Another way to phrase the target could be ‘Effectively plan heat production with upstream and downstream departments’.  Once effective collaboration is in place and embedded as a behaviour, then the quantitative target of 90 heats/day can be set without the negative impacts upstream or downstream in production.

Taking this a step further, what would happen if, on an infrequent basis or on an appropriate issue, we just set the ‘compass heading’ for the direction we wanted our organisation to go in?  If we combined this with providing people with clear delegation / parameters in which we were happy for them to work autonomously, would we find that they actually surpassed any targets we would have set them?  Some of these concepts are usefully explored in Stephen Bungay’s book The Art of Action.

In the Harvard Business School Working Paper by Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky and Bazerman in 2009, the authors argue that “the beneficial effects of goal setting have been overstated and that systematic harm caused by goal setting has been largely ignored. We identify specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.”

In addition to the above, I think that perhaps there are Human Performance factors that ought to be considered.  Do people start to slow down as they approach attainment of highly specified targets?  If that quantitative target wasn’t there, would they have gone further?  Is meeting a quantitative goal so stressful and all-consuming that it is damaging to people’s health and well-being?  Would giving people a sense of direction and encouraging the behaviours we seek to develop a more efficient and more effective organisation?  Does setting highly specific goals or targets actually narrow the organisation’s perspective?  Would more be done on a wider scale if people weren’t driving towards a single point?

There has been plenty of reaction to the HBS working paper cited above, with many leading theorists defending the use of targets.  I am not advocating a polarised debate.  I also feel that a discussion on ‘targets’ is too wide a definition, hence my focus on quantitative, Balanced Scorecard type goals.

What I am suggesting is that perhaps, from time to time, we could consider just how far people would go if they were not set a specific and measurable target; if it was left down to them to determine how far they could get along a ‘compass bearing’, which we could then set as the reward.  At the very least, it would be an interesting way to assess employees and their motivations.  Can we consider a framework in which the ‘non-discretionary’ aspects of an organisation are set to specific and quantifiable targets but the ‘nice to haves’ are more behaviour focused?

I also invite you to consider, in my opinion, the most widely misused quote in ‘measurement’:

Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the visionary business scholar who transformed the auto industry, said, “…if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it…”   This is technically true, but if you take the ENTIRE quote, this is what he actually said in full: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

Quite a difference the start and end of a quote make!