3 Risks of Short-Term Targets

by Stacey Barr |

“You’ll get square eyes!” my mother used to warn me when I was a child, and she thought I was watching too much TV. It’s not true, but it is true that what we look at most does certainly influence our sight. How is our sight influenced by looking at short-term targets?

Short-term targets are those that we try and ‘hit’ every month (or every day or every week).

It’s common to see short-term targets in sales. For example, each sales rep must strive for 20 sales each month. But they aren’t limited to sales environments. In fact, you probably have some form of short-term targets in your own organisation or company.

And if you have short-term targets, you probably have these ‘sight’ problems too:

Risk #1 is short-sightedness: the inability to see future consequences of current actions.

Hitting short-term targets often requires hard work. People work longer hours, work faster and put in more effort to squeeze out better performance to hit the higher numbers.

But it’s not sustainable. Eventually they will burn out by burning the candle at both ends. Or they will be constantly tampering with their work procedures, changing this and that, and ultimately increasing complexity and uncertainty. More complexity and more uncertainty produces worse performance.

We can cure target-induced short-sightedness problem by helping people to focus on working smarter, not harder. This means working ON their processes, not just IN them. It means using process improvement tools to redesign the process once, so it continues to perform at a higher level from that point onward.

Risk #2 is tunnel-vision: the inability to see impacts on other parts of the same system.

Focusing on numbers that must be met each week or each month risks that other important things will fall into the peripherary. The harder we focus on those numbers, the more our peripheral vision weakens and the less of those important things we can see.

Some sales staff resort to using discounts to meet the sales numbers, or they sell to customers that really can’t afford what they’re buying. Many of those sales erode profits and cause a growing feeling of resentment in the customer base.

We can cure target-induced tunnel-vision by starting with, and always reminding ourselves of, the ultimate results we want and how we all contribute best to those results. There will always be several results that matter together. We want everyone to feel responsible for improving the results, not hitting the numbers.

Risk #3 is wandering eye: the inability to stay focused on one’s own efforts.

When individuals are given short-term targets, their eyes too readily wander to what their colleagues – now seen as competitors – are doing. Comparing themselves to others takes the focus off doing and contributing their best, in a healthy state of mind.

Everyone is going to have a unique contribution to a company or organisation. There will always be someone who did the most and someone who did the least. Focusing on this only serves to make people feel ashamed or embarrassed or fearful.

We can cure target-induced wandering-eye by giving much more attention to team collaboration, and much less attention (if any) to the natural diversity among people. Collaboration produces far greater results than does competition.

What we need instead of short-term targets…

We need people to feel like they’re part of something bigger than just their own little personal bubble. First we need to encourage teamwork, clarity about the results that matter most, and working ON the processes so working IN them is better. Then we can use a balanced set of measures and longer-term targets in a healthy way to give teams a challenge they’ll be happy to rise to.


Can you think of examples of these sight problems where short-term targets are used in your organisation or company?

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