The 9 most populars arguments for setting KPIs deconstructed

comic1This is an updated blog post from June 2013.  I love it so much for its clarity. I thought it well worth an update for 2015.

I actually have a really fond memory of meeting an MD in 2013 and she said to me that a person she met the day before quoted this blog article about cheating and targets. She picked them up on it as being from this blog.  Made my day that. Small things eh.

Anyway this post is from the utterly brilliant blog System Thinking for Girls and not me, she seems to have gone AWOL in 2015.

It deconstructs beautifully the arguments that some use to say target setting works.

System thinkers are adamant that targets make performance worse not better. Please re read that. Worse not better.

It’s written by an anonymous person. Below is how she describes herself on her blog. And by the way she tags her blog Britain’s funniest blog on system thinking. And I think it is.  Well done you Ms Anon.

I think it helps to have a sense of humour when you start to examine Systems Thinking.  Mainly because it draws on the irrationality of management and organisation structures.

System thinking drives you bonkers for a while.  It seems akin to taking the red pill in the Matrix but really it is just a lesson in critical thinking which there is way too little of today, especially in management.

If you are in middle management and  you are brave enough you may allow yourself to admit that you may be causing problems by the way you manage people in your agency or the way you’re managed.

You may be acting on people rather than the system.  The bold claim by system thinkers (like William Deming) is that management should be acting on the system (the way the work is done) 95% of the time and only 5% on the employees. All employees want is the chance to do a ‘good’ job. Managements rules and targets rob them of the chance to do this.

“People with targets and jobs dependent upon meeting them will probably meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.” W. Edwards Deming

Just look here at how expensive lead generation gets. Lead generation is notorious for setting targets that must be hit on pain’s of death,

About our guest blogger…

I’m a feminist and an amateur systems thinker – officially the two best world views.

I worked in local government for several years, read John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector’ and this changed the way I thought about work.

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. I recommend ‘The Myth of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus‘ and ‘The Gender Delusion’. Both authors demolish the ‘science’ that reinforces gender stereotypes.

I’m also inspired by Dan Pink’s work on motivation (my insert here – remember this doing the rounds in 2013 – everyone lapped it up –  have you changed your agency accordingly – have you altered the way you use targets and monetary rewards?) and Seth Godin’s blog on marketing.

I have strong views on organisations and stereotypes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say boo to a goose.


Why I love the post below is that although I expect it is aimed at the Public Sector it is my belief similar issues exist in new business departments and board rooms of creative agencies and between agencies and their clients.

Agencies set targets for sales, profit, meetings, briefs and pitches for examples as standard.  Although today they may add in likes, RTs, opes, CTR, views and so on. All which  lead to cheating, arguing, stress, wonky pipe-line reports, politics,  lack of quality control and ultimate under performing, oh the irony.

And then  agencies with their clients (especially in social media) set targets for sales, market share, likes, hits, views, follows, reach,  interactions, up-loads, engagement, thumbs ups, klouts and so on.   None of these measures could be cheated could they? See Ben Kay’s blog post on Santiago Swallow.

Targets could and should be replaced with purpose and principles more on that here.

Guest blog starts here…Take the red pill

Okay, so we know targets are bad

Hundreds of researchers, academicsbloggerspsychologists, managers, more bloggers, statisticians  authors have written about the damage caused by targets. It isn’t an abstract problem, targets can kill. But politicians, civil servants, managers, HR people, consultants and pundits all over the world think they know better.

People continue to argue targets have their place.

What are their arguments?

The 9 Most popular arguments deconstructed

Arguments used by your Nanna

This is what anyone would say – your mum, dad, aunties, uncles, people down the pub, journalists, politicians, think tank people and civil servants.

1. It’s common sense

Setting targets is common sense. But, as Julian Baggini says in this book on bad arguments, appealing to common sense is a sort of exasperation, something seems so obviously true to us that we don’t think it is worth explaining why. It’s just lazy. Invoking common sense is really a shorthand way of saying we think something is obviously true or false. It is misleading because it implies a universal standard of rationality. Saying it is just common sense is a way of shifting responsibility for having to explain why we think what we do onto some mythical judge of ordinary reason. And yet we know that science repeatedly confounds common sense.

2. I don’t believe it

Some people just don’t believe that targets always make performance worse. This argument basically says that because you can’t imagine something is true, it isn’t. As Julian Baggini says, someone’s inability to imagine that something is or is not the case, is not in itself a reason to think it is or not the case. Some true things are simply unimaginable.

The fact that we have strong convictions does not mean that something is true. When you are confronted by the belief argument, you should give up. You can only counter this argument by allowing the other person to see and experience the effects of targets.

3. Yes, but you have to strike a balance

You have to strike a balance between having too many targets and no targets at all. A happy medium. People love to be reasonable. Striking a balance makes the person who is attempting to strike it appear a reasonable sort of person. Who wants to be unbalanced? After you have looked at the pros and cons and understood the competing arguments, you should balance them out, yes?

But when someone strikes a balance, they rarely say what balance has to be struck and why. Instead, they throw this phrase in as the final justification. It allows someone to come into a discussion and own new midway territory between two competing positions.

Talk of balance can be reassuring when actually, what is needed is a radical rebalancing of priorities. No balancing is required when the scales come down firmly on one side. In short, striking a balance is woolly and platitudinous, neither ideal when you are dealing with a statistical reality. Fewer targets, just like a little bit of ham for a vegetarian, is still the wrong thing to do.

Arguments used by experts

These arguments are made by the people who reckon they know something; the HR people, managers, consultants, management journalists, performance management officers and the armchair pundits. I’ve paraphrased the list below from this book.

4. Targets motivate people

Correct, they do, but they motivate people only to meet the target, not achieve the purpose. The target becomes the de facto purpose, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the system.

5. Targets make people accountable

Yes, they do, but for meeting the target and for doing whatever is within their means to meet it or be seen to meet it,  including cheating and lying. 

6. The alternative is ambiguity and fudge

Systems thinkers know that using real measures to understand whether purpose has been achieved is anything but ambiguity and fudge. It is the height of clarity and utility. Imposing targets on people will encourage the fudging of results and increase ambiguity because no one has a clue what is really going on.

7. Targets enable comparison

Yes, if  comparing one lot of lies against another floats your boat.

8. The alternative is anarchy

No, replacing targets with measures allows much better control. Performance becomes visible to everyone. There is nowhere for people to hide. Anarchy exists with an absence of authority. If you use measures that relate to purpose, the new authority becomes the customer and what matters to them. The individual worker is freer, yes, but freer to use their ingenuity to solve problems instead of to cheat the system.

9. Targets are okay if you do them right

Impossible. All numerical targets in hierarchies, without exception, cause jiggery pokery, make liars and pretenders out of good people, tell you nothing about reality, waste money, make staff  focus on the wrong things and give the customer a properly bad service.  No human has yet discovered a way to set a numerical target in a hierarchy that improves performance. See Chapter 7, ‘An Irrational Belief in Targets’ of this book for more on why the common methods used by managers to set targets are all flawed and will lead to poor performance. If you are going to set a target, you might as well use my random target generator. It would be exactly as scientific.

Ring any bells my new business friends – do you ever cheat to keep management happy?  Ever bigged up that short-term lead to make the status report look more robust and in-line with expectations??  Ever shoved your way on to a pitch to get a bonus or hit a target?  Ever booked a meeting that didn’t really exist to bump the numbers up?  Ever dialled the phone so you looked like you were calling another prospect when really you weren’t?

Ever hit a proxy target and still been fired? I have.

Conversely, I have made an agency money and been fired because of not hitting the proxy KPIs set by mod management – figure that out.  “We were impressed by the amount of new business you bought in but we (middle management) thought you should have been hitting our proxy KPIs too – so on that basis you’re fired.”  They went on to hire an agency that could hit their proxys but not win a new piece of business for toffee.

Is that what the new business role is today to cheat? Of course not.  If you didn’t have to cheat couldn’t you be more innovative in how you went about generating opportunities? Couldn’t you save your agency time and money by qualifying leads better rather than hitting targets? Sure you could.

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