To Reach a Target, You Must Ignore It

January 13, 2015 by Stacey Barr

Slacklining is the skill of balancing, walking and executing tricks on a thin strap of webbing that is suspended between two fixed points. It’s a bit like tightrope walking, except the webbing is about an inch or two wide, and it has some stretch or ‘slack’ in it which makes it wobble and bounce as you move on it.

It looks harder than it is. But I guess that depends on your approach. I’ve personally found that when you’re just learning, if you set expectations of how quickly you’ll be able to balance and walk – or if you set the expectation that you won’t ever be able to – it will influence your approach to trying.

You’ll either take too long to ‘get it’ or you’ll give up.

Pursuing targets in business isn’t too different. As I’m learning slacklining, I’ve noticed that the best way to make progress is to forget the target altogether and simply let my brain gather data. This means I just put one foot on the line and step up. Then wobble and step off. Then do it over and over again.

My brain is gathering data as I do this, with each and every attempt. It beats me what data my brain is gathering but I notice that without trying, my foot gets better and better at positioning on the slackline. Without trying, I step up with less and less wobble. Without trying, I am staying on the slackline longer. Without trying, I can walk the entire length of it feeling quite stable and have a confident rhythm as I step forward.

And I notice that without trying to reach the target of balancing and walking, I’m getting closer to that target. After about half a dozen 20-minute sessions, I could take a walk of about 7 or 8 steps. After another half a dozen sessions, I could walk the entire length of about 10 metres. Now, I can walk the length of it, spin on the spot and walk back.

Not trying to reach the target might sound counterintuitive, but it’s the essence of improving. It means your attention is on what you’re doing right now, how you’re doing it, absorbing lessons from both success and failure, and practicing. How can you improve what you’re doing now if your attention is on the future?

Say you have a goal for your team to spend more time on priority work tasks, rather than administrivia, rework and distractions. And say you all measure it using % Team Work Hours Spent On Priorities. What many people would do is keep an eagle-eye on what this measure is doing every month, and every month try very hard to hit a monthly target, which in our example could be 75%.

Trying hard means you’ll take too long to ‘get it’, because you’re not focusing on learning better ways, you’re focusing on how far you are from where you want to be. Or you’ll give up because you believe that you can’t do it, you don’t have the right resources or enough budget or the ability to control other people.

Instead, you need to turn your attention away from trying to hit your target of 75%, and instead turn it to how you and the team are allocating their time, what they are saying ‘no’ to, what they are saying ‘yes’ to, and whether they are finding ways to delete or delegate or downsize the non-important stuff.

This paradox of ignoring the target is hard to practice. But it’s the easiest way for your ‘to-be performance’ to one day become your ‘as-is performance’. Set your target, then almost forget about it. Focus most of your attention and energy on practicing, experimenting, testing and learning. Fundamental performance improvement is the natural consequence.

DISCUSSION:

When your team gets together to review and discuss performance, what do you talk most about? Do you talk about practicing, experimenting, testing and learning about what will elevate performance? Or do you go around in circles talking about excuses and obstacles and constraints that justifying why performance isn’t better than it is?

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  1. LOVE IT! This is awesome. I preach against using targets because I find that people focus on the target and forget the reason behind the indicator – the true goal. As in your example – why did they want to focus on higher priority work? To serve the customer better? The indicator was how much time they spend on administrivia (vs. the higher priority stuff)…and I don’t want to focus on the indicator which will tell me how well I’m doing…I want to focus on the goal. But now you’ve given me a new viewpoint (thanks!). I also don’t want to focus on the target because I won’t reach it…at least not as quickly or easily.

    LOVE IT!
    This is a great life lesson. Thanks!

    Marty

  2. Mike Butler says:

    Once again right on the button! An insightful article.

  3. Feels very right. I encourage people to remember their goals just to check congruence periodically but to focus on the here and now of solving the problems. Shell used to assess people against a ‘Helicopter’ quality: being able to rise above the trivia to survey the the overall lie of the land then descend into the detail. Unfortunately many people develop a ‘Glider’ quality: soaring in circles supported by a stream of hot air. We can only solve problems by addressing the detail.

  4. Mohammed says:

    A convincing article to bring home a very important fact of daily life. Quite applicable for my 11th standard son. I lately found that my son’s focus is on June 2016 , that is, the time he will be eligible for appearing in a combined competitive test for professional studies. He remembers most of the dates the exams will be held and discusses this in detail and even which college is good and why, whether to stay in hostel or find some other way round. This is not bad but his current performance in the week- end tests is not as good either. I had been convincing him that choosing a stream of study and choosing a good college is totally dependent on the performance in the final tests and that our focus now should be to improve the daily practice and improve the weekly scores. The time and energy we spend on visualizing the final outcome can better be spent on the current daily practice.
    Slacklining is a very good illustration to support my point. Thank you so much,

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