Target setting conversations can create a shocking number of emotional responses, from excitement all the way to anxiety, fear, and anger. With this range of emotion, we often miss the real purpose of targets and forget how we can use them for improvement. If you want to mitigate the bad behaviours that can show up with target setting and drive better behaviours, try some or all these suggested modifications.
Modification #1: Targets as a symbol of a team’s commitment to improving something important
Before talking about targets, we must first ensure we are improving something that really matters, and those accountable have enough control and influence to move current performance to a new desired level of performance in the future.
Once we have buy-in to the importance of the goal, only then can we start conversations about targets as a symbol of a team’s commitment to improvement. If the current context of setting targets in your organization is vague, undefined, or associated too much with success and failure, then it is time to adapt.
Target setting tip: Make sure you don’t set targets too early in the process. In many organizations, targets are set before the measures are even defined, and before we know what current performance is doing.
Modification #2: The energy of targets as intentions, not expectations
If we set targets with the expectation of “hitting” them, then it’s easy to feel like we’ve failed if we “miss” them. Expectations make it a judgement process; and, feeling judged can coerce us to focus on hitting numbers instead of simply improving our performance in the direction of the target. If people are held accountable to “hit” targets beyond their current capability, they often look for short cuts, ignore unintended consequences, make excuses, act defensively, and fudge the figures. Do any of these behaviours sound familiar?
Framing targets as intentions rather than expectations gives us the space to focus on “the why” of improvement and, if we remember “the why”, we are less likely to be distracted with the “how much”.
Target setting tip: To reduce feelings of expectation and judgement, try using staged targets. Instead of setting one “stretch target”, set one or two “more achievable” targets in the interim. Use these interim targets as practice to learn more about how you can influence performance enough to achieve or over-achieve that ultimate target.
Modification #3: The pre-requisites for targets are a clear goal, a meaningful measure, and a baseline
The best time to set a realistic target that motivates and drives performance improvement is when we begin visualising our data and reporting on our measure. When we put our data on a graph, we can see its current baseline (the XmR chart does this best for organizational performance measures). We can fine tune the target when we start to evaluate what it will take to get performance to change. If the change is harder than we expected, we might need a less challenging target, or maybe more time to reach for it.
Remember not to start the target setting conversation too early as we first need a clear goal, with a meaningful measure, and data baseline for that measure.
Target setting tip: If your organization insists that targets are set right at the start, when the goals is first developed, all is not lost. Treat each step forward as an opportunity to revise the original target size or timeframe based on what your team is learning as you work to improve performance.
Modification #4: The focus is to set targets for process improvement, not people
We use targets because we believe they can motivate our workplaces to make big-step improvements, and we usually provide rewards/incentives to drive the likelihood of achieving our ambitious targets. However, the reality of reward/punish systems is that they are more likely to manipulate people into behaviours that sabotage true performance improvement. We call this sabotage “gaming the data”, which is really a subtle form of cheating. People do this because the targets drive them to serve themselves instead of their teams, their customers, or their organization.
If instead, leaders focus performance improvement (and thus their measures and targets) at how their organization’s processes are performing, people can then align their behaviours to the team’s and the organization’s goals.
Target setting tip: Position measures and targets as a tool in a team’s hand, not a rod for their back. Even though employee management and executive renumeration systems are quite ingrained, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change them if our outcomes will improve. Try talking about a new definition of accountability, one that moves us away from “hitting” targets and towards how people use measures to learn about how the work is done and make informed decisions to improve performance.
Modification #5: The formulation of a target must match the movement of your measure
Targets for performance measures have a technical side too. Two problems we commonly see with target formulation are:
- The target is in different units to the measure. For example, the measure is a count or number, and the target is a percentage.
- The target is the opposite of the measure. For example, the measure is counting people with excess vacation leave, but the target is for people without excess vacation leave.
We need to be careful that our targets fully match our measures.
- Assuming we decided that the measure should stay a count, the target would then have to change to a count. And this different target can then match the measure, and be placed on the XmR chart, relative to the baseline.
Target setting tip: Targets must match the movement of your measures.
To match the movement of a measure, the target needs to be in the same unit as the measure and be a number that the measure itself could take.
Side note: If you want more information on XmR charts and how targets work with them, go to Stacey Barr’s blog www.measureupblog.com and search for “XmR target”.
Modification #6: The human conditions of support, buy-in, and belief must be in place
Leaders need to give visible, active, and continuous support to the teams who are accountable for reaching a KPI target. The more a team has direct involvement in and influence over the design of the measure and selection of the target, the more buy-in they’ll have. The more a team has skill in the task of performance improvement, knowledge of the causes that constrain current performance, and influence over the business process or system that needs improving, the stronger their belief will be. The more that leaders provide inspiration, encouragement, authority, money, and time, the more supported a team will feel in reaching for their targets.
Inspiring teams to improve performance has much more to do with HOW we approach target setting, than it does with the actual targets themselves.
Target setting tip: Remember it is humans that use (or choose to ignore) measures and targets, and so your organization’s KPI approach must also have purposeful built-in methods to address the human conditions as well as the technical ones that lead to great measures.
Apply these modifications to shift your culture from targets as a rod on the back of your employees, to a carrot in their hand, inspiring teams to embrace improvement and use targets as a symbol of their commitment to improving something important.