Are Targets Expectations or Intentions, And Why Does It Matter?

by Stacey Barr |

Some people love targets and many people hate them. They will avoid locking in targets, they will set them low enough to be within their known capability, and they will make excuses about why they don’t reach them. Hardly the kind of behaviour that drives performance improvement.

And isn’t that why we have targets: to drive improvement of performance? To make things better? To reach higher heights? And yet, the outcome we want by having targets is so often sabotaged by the very act of setting them.

I believe it’s because we frame targets as expectations… rather than intentions.

Targets as expectations…

When targets are framed as expectations, they encourage us to focus on hitting numbers. We all know that lots of dysfunctional things happen when people feel they are accountable to meet expectations beyond their current capability (which is what targets call us to do). They take short cuts, they ignore unintended consequences, they make excuses, they act defensively, they fudge the figures.

Having expectations that targets must be met often causes us to lose context; to forget the ‘why’ that triggered the target in the first place.

Targets as intentions…

But what if targets were framed as intentions instead? Intention helps us embrace the ‘why’ and not focus overly on the ‘how’ or ‘how much’.
We can set intentions for the direction of change we want, for the ballpark size of change we want, for what we will learn in pursuing that change.

Intentions give us the space to explore possibility. And this is a much more positive energy than the threatening energy that almost always comes with expectation.

What could an ‘intention target’ look like?

Rather than setting targets that must be hit each and every month or quarter in order to be considered successful, try these ideas:

  • Get Buy-In: Invite the team who will be pursuing the target to set them.
  • Range Targets: Set targets as combinations of minimums and maximums, rather than exact points.
  • Capability Targets: Set targets for the Central Line or Natural Process Limits using XmR charts, rather than setting them for each month or quarter.
  • Staged Targets: Set an easy short-term target, a moderately challenging medium-term target, and a long-term stretch target.
  • Learn & Reset: Have target review points, where you check how useful the targets are after you learn more about what it will take to reach them.


What are your experiences with how people frame targets for their measures, and how they feel about them? Share your thoughts!


Leave a Reply to Lance Peterson Cancel reply

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  1. Lance Peterson says:

    Very well said. People generally misunderstand targets. This is especially true of leaders, including top management, who themselve see the target as a fixed entiry that “must be hit or else…” even when much for the action and circumstanced leading to the target are outside the team’s control. While I think the target should help keep the “pressure on”, so th speak, it should not be used as a beating rod when the reason it is not achieved is outside the control of the team.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Lance, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It makes me wonder what kind of training people receive about targets, such that this ‘beating rod’ mentality is so prevalent?

      Or perhaps it’s a lack of good training about targets?

  2. Targets are set to achieve some gain (or loss reduction). Achievement translates into dollars at the end of the day. With the relentless pursuit of more (every month) and the failure to understand (or allow for the fact of) variability … out comes the ‘beating rod’ … every month!

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