Targets That Are Shoulding You in the Foot

by Stacey Barr |

How do you feel when you hear the word ‘target’ at work? Nervous? Anxious? Excited? Motivated? Competitive? That’s the funny thing about targets: we often have an emotional response to them, based on whether or not we believe we can meet them. Is that healthy?

Some targets trigger anxiety and feeling not good enough. It’s hard to be creative, and patient enough to find real and lasting performance improvements, when we feel anxious or we like a failure because we’re not already performing at target.

This anxiety comes from expectations, from ‘shoulds’. It’s the same feeling we get when a loved one criticises us. They feel we ‘should’ be behaving in a different way to how we are, and we feel bad about not measuring up.

When targets have the energy of ‘should’ our attention can easily fixate on the urgency of closing the gap between as-is performance and should-be performance. And our typical reactions to urgency kick in: we push harder, we rush, we make excuses. And these reactions cause stress.

Often this energy of ‘should’ starts with the executives or managers who set the targets. But they equally as often can come from how we frame the targets in our own minds.

Three little mindset shifts can help us make friends with targets.

Intentions rather than expectations.

The first mindset shift is to think of targets as intentions rather than expectations. We have a target because we’re measuring something we want to improve. What we want to improve is a result that is really important to us. That result is an intention that we have to make something important a little bit better.

For example, imagine we have a target for reducing the average time it takes our team to resolve customer queries to 12 hours, instead of the 24 hours it takes now. Our team might feel like they have to rush more, to hit that target. They might believe they have to start hitting now, so next month’s measure looks good. They’ll cut corners, they’ll take focus off doing the job right, and they’ll burn out.

Instead, we could encourage our team to remember why reducing the time matters. It’s because we care about our customers and want to solve their problems as best we can. It’s not a numbers game. And rushing and cutting corners will only make our customers less happy.

So before we set targets we should revisit what that intention is. This way the energy to pursue the target comes from inside of us and isn’t imposed on us from the outside. In other words, we feel buy-in.

Pursuing rather than hitting.

The second mindset shift is to think about pursuing the target, not hitting it. Hitting a target is all about numbers, a game we play every month to see if performance is good or not. Pursuing a target is about exploring what we can change to move closer to an elevated level of performance. Curiosity is the dominant emotion here: curiosity to discover causes holding performance back and invent elegant solutions to remove those causes once and for all.

Our team, from the earlier example, could examine the process of handling customer queries, and find ways to make the process simpler. They might ask different questions of the customer for a better problem diagnosis, they might collaborate to share solutions with each other, they might do away with red tape and unnecessary approvals.

So rather than assigning our self-worth based on hitting should-be targets, and pushing and rushing to hit them, we can instead practice a continuous improvement mindset to find the easiest ways to elevate performance to could be targets.

Gradual rather than instant.

Targets don’t have to be suddenly met. In fact, they often can’t be. An athlete isn’t suddenly going to take 5 minutes of their best 10km time just because their coach sets the target. The athlete needs time to improve their capability to perform at that new level. Targets need to come with timeframes, and the timeframe needs to respect the amount of inertia an existing process has, and what it will take to make it more capable.

Our example team, trying to reduce the time to handle customer queries, could monitor the impact of their process changes, and over the course of several months, see if the overall level of performance is getting better. They would learn what works and what doesn’t, and the successful changes would mean they never have to push or rush to hit a target: they build the capability into their process.

The best targets – and probably the ones that are achieved the soonest – are those that evoke our curiosity and an energy of could-be. If targets are all about should-be, they won’t likely tap into the very creativity and curiosity required to reach them.


What’s the energy of targets in your organisation or business? Is it evoking a healthy response from your colleagues or employees? Or is it shutting them down, and sabotaging your ability to elevate performance?

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  1. Hi Stacey, I’ve commented on this topic before and in my view targets are a complete waste of time – we should not become friends with them we should abolish them. The negative consequences of targets and a target setting culture are quite astonishing.

    What is wrong with just measuring performance with the intent of learning and improving? What value does the numerical target add to this, especially since it will be an arbitrary number anyway? Any number you put up could be questioned, we need to improve by 10%, why not 11% or 9%? – the real question is by what method will we improve our performance.

    Even in safety with Zero harm targets which on the surface sounds admirable, the danger is that people do not report things as it will ruin the reporting.

    Targets motivate people – if so where is the evidence for this claim? I’ve seen much evidence to suggest the contrary, targets demotivating staff and creating a de facto purpose to reach the target regardless of broader impact, all sorts of creativity comes into play to manipulate data to reach the target. A recent report from House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) into allegations of police mis-recording of crime statistics highlight this. Blog and link to report available on inspguilfoyle.wordpress[dot]com/2014/04/09/incontrovertible-evidence/

    It sets direction – surely a well defined sense of purpose already does this.

    You know your statistics so when I say that there are only three places a target can reside on a control chart know what I talk about (assuming a stable process). It will either be below the LCL (in which case you will always meet the target), it will be in between the UCL and LCL (in which case it will be hit and miss due to common cause), or it will be above the UCL (in which case you will never reach it with the current method).

    Your example of reducing the time from 24 hours to 12 hours is an interesting one, why is the average time important? A couple of complex cases and your average can blow out. You have spoken before about the need to shift the process capability and that’s a way to understand if any real improvement has been achieved. The value is as you know not in the average as such.

    Targets and target setting is the thinking of the command and control manager in a organisation where decision-making is separated from work. As the complexity of organisations increase and more and more work is knowledge work, managers have had to abandon the attempt to control the individual activities of their staff and stop using target-setting to try to control the organisation.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Stefan you really do put a good case forward, against targets.

      I don’t share the same concerns when a few things are in place first:

      1) the measure is displayed in an XmR chart, so it’s natural variability can be seen
      2) the target is set not for the measure values, but for the Central Line, or one or both of the Natural Process Limits, in the XmR chart – the target is set for the capability of the process, not the individual measure values
      3) the approach to respond to the target is always about examining the work process being measured, so that the focus is on changing the process to improve its capability

      There certainly are command-and-control type managers that abuse and misuse targets, as you suggest. I don’t use them in that spirit, but in the spirit of focusing and motivating improvement. I don’t see them as must-reach numbers, unless it’s for an area of performance where standards are important, like fluoride levels in public water supplies or cleanliness in hospitals. Targets matter then, because public health is affected. And as we know, not all work processes are capable of meeting their standards.

      • Hi Stacey and thanks for the reply. Very few people understand variation to start with so your points 1 -3 are unlikely to be in place (unless they’ve taken your course perhaps). Far more likley is a draconian approach with a target set by someone who has no idea of the process capability in the first place.

        Even with the example of standards that must be met, the target itself is not the important part, it is the method by which it is achived (consistently) that is critical. Of course you have to measure things to monitor and adjust but a fixed target does not have to be in place for this to occur.
        If at a certain level something will harm people then it is no longer an arbitrary number although I suspect there is still a range in play rather than a single specific number.

        I still question the motivating effect of targets when determined by others. Is there any recent research that validates this assertion? There is some recent research on the detrimental impact of rewards on performance for anything that is not a pure mechanical task.

        If we broaden our view beyond a closed process and into the realm of systems we will certainly run into problems. Complex adaptve systems (i.e. organisations) are not causal, they are dispositional, so cause and effect are only understood in hindsight. This means that instead of setting a fixed target condition and trying to bridge the gap we allow the system to emerge in a direction, we dampen the things that take us off course and amplify the ones that push us in the desired direction.



        • Stacey Barr says:

          Stefan, yes I agree that for targets to work they way I describe, people need to:

          a) feel a strong sense of ownership of their measures (that is, participate actively in their design and implementation), and know they are measuring an important result/goal/intention

          b) understand their process capability using their measures

          c) understand statistical thinking and XmR charts

          d) set a target for process capability, not measure values themselves

          e) set their own targets, not have them imposed

          All these principles are part of PuMP, as you suggested. Targets are currently causing a lot of damage for many organisations, because the above points are not in place.

  2. Hi Stacey,

    I found your above post via Stefan’s link to my blog and am a bit perplexed about your argument / response to his comment, in particular Point 2: If the target is set at the central line (mean average) then sometimes it will be hit and sometimes it won’t, regardless of consistent effort and a stable process – any variance from the central line is due to common cause variation and is inevitable.

    Two key points:
    1. All numerical targets are arbitrary.
    2. No numerical target is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour.

    Best regards,


    • Stacey Barr says:

      Simon, I see why you are (rightly) perplexed. I will clarify: I don’t mean to set the target AT the Central Line, I mean to set the target FOR the Central Line. This means that we want to improve the process being measured so that we ultimately see the effect of that improvement in a shift in the Central Line closer to the target.

      I display targets on XmR charts are points above the dates we aim to reach them, not as an additional line on the chart, nor assuming the target and Central Line are the same thing.

      Are all numerical targets truly arbitrary? Can’t they be informed by current process capability and the voice of the customer? Do targets have to be perfect before they can be useful?

      Perhaps we have different understandings of what a target is?

      • Hello Stacey and thanks for your reply,

        The thing is, whilst it is right to seek improvement of a process (which will potentially be observed by narrowing of variation and/or a step change in the desired direction), the factors that cause the improvement are the changes to system conditions, not the target.

        Furthermore, even if you achieve a shift in the mean average (central line), how can a target ever be represented as a single point anywhere on a control chart, as this ignores natural variation?

        Targets do not provide a method or capacity. There is a broad range of evidence that they are likely to cause unintended consequences, plus there is no recognised scientific method for setting a numerical target, hence yes, I argue they are arbitrary.



  3. Liz Snell says:

    here I thought you had typo with “shoulding you in the foot” until I read on. Great piece and so right. Thanks for another tip on getting buy-in for the ever feared performance measurement 😉

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