Ditch The Target… Are You Mad?


Targets are a common feature of the modern landscape. Whether in business, sport, education, healthcare, or any other realm, most people are working to a target. Normally, the targets are accompanied by a raft of ‘Key Performance Indicators’ (KPIs). In fact, targets have become so ingrained within our psyche, that many people seem unable to imagine a world without them.

I recently had a conversation with a business leader, who headed up the Europe & Asia Division of a large manufacturing company. I outlined a little approach, which I call “Two Lengths of the Pool”, and how it applies to business. Several years ago I worked with an Olympic swimmer, as his sport psychologist. Chris, the swimmer, competed in the 100 metres breaststroke event. Embarrassingly, it took Chris and I around three years to understand what his job was. Initially, we thought his job was to win (No, that wasn’t it), or to gain medals (No, that wasn’t it either), or secure funding (No) or sponsorship (Sorry). Eventually, we realised that Chris’ job was to swim two lengths of the pool as fast as he possibly could. It meant that his job wasn’t to beat the other swimmers, or to beat a specific time. It was just to swim as fast as he could.

As I explained this to the business leader, I emphasised the power in the words ‘as fast as he could’. The business leader looked confused. “But what was his target?”, he asked. “To swim as fast as he could”, I replied. The furrows on the business leader’s brow deepened. “No”, he said, “A time. He must have had a target… something to aim at”. “Ah”, I replied, “Yes. His target was to swim as fast as he possibly could. He was trying to get quicker all the time. We knew his previous times, so he was always trying to be quicker”. At that point, I think I saw a little steam escaping from his ears. “No, I mean an actual target. What was his actual target?”.

A couple of years ago, I embarked on a daft endurance event for charity. At one point someone asked me how much money I was aiming to raise from the event. I said, “As much as we possibly can”. She replied by saying, “What do you mean? £10,000? £100,000? £1,000,000?”. I smiled and answered, “I’d like to raise as much money as we possibly can. Why would it be anything else?”.

I once took a professional cricketer onto the putting green at the golf course, and asked him to sink as many consecutive two foot putts as he possibly could. “How many is that?”, he asked, “50, 100, 1000?”. I replied, “It’s as many as you possibly can”. Interestingly, when he was in the 70s, he asked me how many a tour pro golfer would score. I said, “I’ll tell you at the end”. The cricketer went passed 100, passed 150, passed 200 and eventually missed his 213th putt. On the way back to the car park he asked how many the professional golfers scored. I said, “Many of them miss in the 90s, but the highest score I’ve seen is 123”. If I told him this at the beginning, do you think he would have scored over 200?

Imagine giving a sales team a similar target. Imagine saying, “Good morning. Your target is to go and sell as many widgets as you possibly can… That’s it”. I’ve suggested this to Sales Directors who immediately wince. “What, ditch the target? Are you mad? How will we monitor their performance? How will we drive them? How will we get any kind of performance from them? If we just tell them to do their best, no-one will sell anything”.

If those are the reasons for holding onto targets, it suggests that motivation is the real issue. Our swimmer, Chris, genuinely wanted to swim as fast as he possibly could. He knew that ‘as fast as possible’ was not a soft target. In fact, it is an incredibly tough target. It didn’t matter whether he won the race comfortably and smashed records in the process, we would still ask if he could swim quicker.

I asked the business leader a few questions about the targets that they set. Firstly, I asked, “What if the person smashes the target?”. He answered by saying, “The target was probably too easy”. “Okay”, I said, “What if they don’t get anywhere near the target?”. “Well”, came the reply, “Maybe the target was unrealistic, maybe they’re not good enough, or maybe they’re not trying hard enough”. I frowned. “Alright”, I continued, “What if they just hit their target? What does that tell you?”. “Well”, he replied, “that means that the target was realistic and that the person worked hard to achieve it”.


Here’s another view.

If the person just about scrapes the target, it may also mean that they stopped working as soon as they hit it. Instead of selling as much as they can, the person worked to the target and then took their foot off the gas. Equally, it could mean that they worked their backside off, gave everything they had and coincidently happened to hit the pre-determined target. If that is the case, they would have sold exactly the same amount if the target didn’t exist.

If they work as hard as they possibly can and smash the target, it suggests that the target is useless. Equally, if they work their butt off and miss the target by a mile, it also indicates that the target is useless.

So, what’s the real value in having a target?

If it is to either incentivise people, or as a consequence (a big stick) to induce a feeling of pressure, I would argue that it’s worth taking a deeper look at how we motivate people!

Many people under-perform because they become fixated on their target, and forget to focus on their job. Rather than focusing on executing the processes, they become tied up in the outcome. Are you thinking, “That’s all very well for you, but this is a results business! We have to get the result!!”?

I know the feeling. I work in elite and professional sport. The tiniest margins decide the results upon which people’s jobs rest.

When Chris was a competitive swimmer, we also knew that there was a harsh reality in British Swimming. If Chris was not in the top eight in the world, he would not qualify for funding. His mortgage payments literally depended on a top eight world-ranking. However, his job was not to finish in the top eight, win a medal or to achieve a ‘world class time’. His job was simply to swim as fast as he possibly could.

Why would it be anything else?  


For more on #TwoLengthsThinking read Two Lengths of the Pool; Sometimes the simplest ideas have the greatest impact.