5 Situations When Shifting KPI Goalposts Is Okay

by Stacey Barr

When KPI targets are continually missed, when can they be reassessed without being accused of shifting the goalposts?

Targets aren't goalposts to hit or miss. Credit: Pict Rider

When we accuse someone of shifting the goalposts for their KPI, we’re essentially accusing them of cheating. They didn’t try hard enough to reach their KPI targets, and so they’re lowering them to a standard they can achieve. No one wants to be accused of this!

But what can we do when we really did try hard, but the target remained out of reach? Well, that depends on the reason why our KPI target was missed, despite our best efforts.

There are 5 situations that cause us to miss a target.

Missing a target means that we failed to shift our KPI’s baseline performance to the level we wanted it to be at, by the time we wanted it to reach that level.

It’s important to understand which situation we ended up in, such that we need to reassess our target:

  1. Overly optimistic stretch: The target was too ‘stretch’, and perhaps we didn’t know enough about what it would really take to make performance improve so much. We didn’t have the capability we needed to kick that far.
  2. Overly optimistic deadline: We didn’t give ourselves enough time to make the changes required to reach it by the date on which we aimed to reach it.
  3. Changing priorities: Our business environment changed, or something unexpected and more urgent happened, such that we no longer could give the priority to reach the target for that particular measure.
  4. Changing constraints: The process or policy changed, and therefore the causes we planned to fix are not the same as the causes that now constrain the measure’s progress toward the target.
  5. Poor preparation: The three conditions for targets to work – support, buy-in and belief – were not in place.
  6. Failure to act: We didn’t prioritise the action and resources to reach it.

Only the last of these situations might warrant a change in target being accused as “shifting the goalposts”. The other situations are completely legitimate. So, context surrounding a missed target very much matters in helping us we decide the next best thing to do.

There are 5 important questions to reassess the target.

It’s not helpful to talk about “shifting the goalposts”. That’s part of a blame game, and it destroys our creativity and curiosity when we need it most. It’s much more helpful to talk about these points instead:

  • Why did we miss the target? Which of the above situations did we find ourselves in?
  • Does reaching for that target still matter? Is our KPI still strategically important enough to improve, and does it need to improve as much as we first thought, as quickly as we first thought?
  • What have we learned about what it will really take to reach that target? Next time around, what must we do differently and where must we focus, to find the root cause to fix and fix it in a way that will stick?
  • What would make a better target this time around? What level could we aim for, over what timeframe, and what trajectory could we set to pace our way toward it?
  • Do we have the time and resources, now, to have another go at reaching that target? Do our other existing priorities leave some space to add this back onto our to-do list?

Continually improving the results that matter means that reaching for a target is more important than hitting it.

Remember: when we set any target, we’re guesstimating.

We don’t really know that we can hit any target by the date that we’ve set it at. It’s in the future, for a start. But it’s also an unknown (if it were known, we’d already be at the target). So, this is a learning process.

But because performance management (and measurement) is about continuous performance improvement, it’s not a failure to turn our attention to another iteration of cause analysis and experimenting with improvement solutions. The only failure is not getting back up to try again.

Targets aren’t goalposts to hit or miss; they are intentions for improvement that pull us in the right direction.
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  1. Mike Davidge says:

    Hi Stacey

    Reading this recently reminded me of one of William Deming’s 14 Points for Management – eliminate targets for the workforce. When it was written over 30 years ago, it caused consternation. It still does. Your blogpost goes a long way to explain why Deming was right. This deserves to be set in front of all CEOs!

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