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Targets can be great – they can help you understand where you are going and enable you to focus on getting there. However, targets have the potential to adversely distort behaviour and damage potential - just as much as they can inspire.

We need to take control of the targets, otherwise they take control of us. Here’s advice on how to do this:

  • Purpose driven targets
Let’s start with an organisation that is very growth driven; however, it ignores customer retention in its relentless pursuit of growth. All the energy goes into getting more customers. They explain huge customer losses by saying that customers can’t be relied upon to stay around. What is missing here is purpose; all the time they ignore customer retention, they will struggle to achieve their purpose.

What is your organisation’s purpose? Do your targets serve that purpose or distract from it? Are you prepared to take control of these targets?

  • Stretching beyond easy
People develop through stretching themselves. If we allow ourselves to be controlled by targets that are not particularly stretching, then we limit the extent to which we develop. One client of mine has performance targets for all of its teams. For most, these targets are really easy - so they do just enough to get over the line.

Set targets that stretch; that take into account how we have done in the past, and what our current circumstances are. Targets that reward effort and learning.

  • Push forward rather than holding back
In some companies that I know, people hold back achievements (like sales or production levels) because they have already fulfilled the requirements for the current period. They also want to make it easier to deliver results in the next period. So the records of achievement don’t reflect what really happened – only what was registered. By holding back registering achievement, they are holding back achieving.

Is this happening where you work? Are you being held back because of distortions like this? Can you take control, move beyond those targets and inspire others instead?

  • Incremental steps rather than giving up
Suppose the targets are too stretching, or don’t reward effort or growth - the risk is that teams become despondent and give up. Instead, evaluate what you can do to move closer to the target, to record and celebrate incremental movements. Every world record in sport looks unachievable before it’s broken (for example the 4-minute mile). After that lots of people break that barrier because someone has proved that it can be done.

Have you given up on a target? Can you reset your expectations to learn from more incremental movements in the right direction, and celebrate each incremental move as it happens?

  • Beyond competition
I’ve been involved in a number of organisations that deliberately set teams up in competition against each other. Unfortunately, what I have seen is that teams become more caught up in fighting their supposed colleagues than serving the organisation’s purpose and customers. They withhold information, resources and learning in case they are beaten by their colleagues.

Rather than setting up competition, let’s reward people and teams for collaboration and sharing knowledge.

Taking control of targets

Whether we are in charge of target setting, or the recipient of targets set by others, we have a choice about whether those targets control us and distort our behaviour. Let’s dig deep and work out what our purpose really is and evaluate where we are against that purpose. And then let’s determine how we will act, learn and collaborate to achieve that purpose. If the targets help us, great. If the targets distract then let’s work around them, challenge them and change them.

By Jean Gamester, founder of Semaphora