Numerical Targets &

Outcomes Based Performance Management

Mention numerical targets and you 

tend to get one of three reactions:

“Targets are necessary to drive performance”

“Targets are bad because they cause 

dysfunctional behaviour”

“Targets are risky, but okay if used with caution”

Which camp are you in? 

My position on targets can be 

summed up by two simple points:

All numerical targets are arbitrary.

No numerical target is immune from 

causing dysfunctional behaviour. 

‘Numerical targets’, ‘measures’ and ‘priorities’ are 

three different things, but the words and 

concepts are often conflated. 

This causes people to assume targets are 

necessary, when they are actually thinking about 

one of the other two things.

The reason that all numerical targets are arbitrary is because there is no known scientifically-accepted method of setting one. 

The traditional method of setting a target usually involves simply looking at last year’s performance then adding or subtracting a few percent. That’s it.

Priorities are essential, because we need 

to ensure activity is focused. 

Priorities set direction and tell people what’s important. 

So, if tackling inactivity in the workplace is a team priority, that’s great because everyone knows what’s expected. 

BUT they’re not numerical targets! The target is the bit at the end, invented in someone’s head that states, “…by 23%”, or whatever.

Workers should be out there talking to people asking

"How can I help you to achieve what you need?"

instead we're asking

"How can you help us to produce

the participation or sales data I need?"

Next, we come to perhaps the greatest terminology mix-up in the history of performance management – 

‘targets’ vs ‘measures’.

One of the most common phrases I hear trotted out is, “We need targets so we can measure performance”. 

No, you don’t! MEASURES measure performance – the clue is in the name. Targets don’t measure anything – they are just those random aspirational numbers, invented in someone’s head that state, “…by 23%”, remember?

Measures are absolutely critical, because without measuring the right things in the right way, it’s impossible to understand performance. Measures are just a source of information that can help us to make informed decisions. 

Measures tell us about performance perfectly well – targets are random numbers invented in people’s heads. Therefore, I’d argue effective performance management systems require priorities and measures, but not numerical targets.

In summary:

Numerical targets are arbitrary and therefore 

inherently illegitimate.

Numerical targets do not provide a method or capacity to improve performance.

Dysfunctional behaviour is a highly predictable consequence of target-driven performance management.

Therefore, I argue there is a strong case to abandon targets and use contextualised data instead. Being clear about priorities and using the right measures in the right way informs decision making, promotes learning, and provides the insight necessary to use performance information intelligently. What’s not to like about that, seriously?

Having no targets does not mean no performance management. Having no targets does not mean no accountability. 

Having no targets does not mean no ambition.

Let numerical targets go.

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by mrandyjames


Public - 9/30/16, 3:59 PM