It's a common story: A manager decides he will motivate his staff by setting targets. He bases those targets on the goals of the unit, such as customer satisfaction scores. He then sets a goal for the year to achieve a certain customer service rating based on the previous year's results.
1. Avoid setting targets.
Targets are levels of achievement set by a manager to motivate workers, but it's largely the case that they don't work. Employees learn quickly that the manager simply will move the target upon achievement. When a target is reached early, employees do not achieve a larger reward. Instead, the target is moved sooner. Employees realize there are no real benefits in reaching the target.
Targets are based on measures. They are not the goal. In almost all cases, a goal can be found behind a measure, but because the measure is only an indicator, that indicator is turned into a pseudo-goal while focus on the real things the team wants to achieve is lost.
2. Adjust the focus.
Targets may show progress, but when measures are used properly, they also will show progress as it takes shape.
Targets compel the workforce to focus on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on underlying needs or goals, employees' focus is shifted to meeting the measure needed to reach the target.
Measures — the things that provide insight into our progress (indicators, at best) — become as important as the goals we are trying to achieve when targets are used. Don't do that.
3. Go back to the goal.
Departments laboring under the assumption that their target is the goal should ask themselves a simple question: "Why do we want to achieve the target?" Invariably, a real goal can be found somewhere beneath the requested target.
In the case of customer satisfaction scores, normally the goal is an enhanced, strong and healthy customer experience. Customer satisfaction ratings are only one of the measures that determine the level of customer experience. By setting a target on such an indicator, the need for multiple indicators is ignored, along with the fact that the measure only provides insight into the team's progress. It is not the thing the team is trying to achieve.
Remember this rule: If someone is given a number to reach, they will do everything they can to reach it. Normally, they will succeed. Make sure the real goal is to achieve that number. In most cases, unexpected and unwanted consequences will occur when a team chases data instead of focusing on the underlying goal.
4. Lead without targets.
Work with your team to determine the measures that will provide insight into the health of your services, processes and progress toward your goals. Those measures are a tool, so they should be as accurate as possible. Accuracy is lost quickly when a tool is misused as a judge of performance rather than as a means to improve processes.
The key to leading without targets is to use expectations, which define the norm for the process or service. By clearly depicting the norm, a baseline is established, and that baseline should not change unless something else changes within the process or the environment.
5. Investigate anomalies.
When the team comes in below or above expectations, performance is out of the norm. That means something is amiss. Unless you've knowingly done something to change the process, you should not expect to see such anomalies. If the team is not meeting expectations, investigate and determine the cause of the anomaly, which provides better information on where to focus.
If there are multiple measures for a specific area — hopefully, at least three, to adhere to the principle of triangulation — then anomalies show which of the measures should be investigated.
"Moving away from the use of targets ... requires more than a change of analytics tools."
When the anomaly is below expectations, find out if it indicates a process issue that can be mitigated or avoided in the future. If the anomaly is above expectations, investigate. Find out the cause and determine whether it is something that can be replicated. If it can, ask yourself if it should be replicated.
Many times expectations are exceeded because extra efforts are made in one area while another is neglected. Anomalies, whether positive or negative, require the same response: investigation. We need to find out what caused them. Then, and only then, can we react appropriately.
6. Track trends.
Besides anomalies, expectations allow upward or downward trending to be tracked. If three consecutive points rise or fall, it can be anticipated that the next point will continue in the same direction, unless something is changed. Investigate to determine whether there is a cause for the steady movement up or down. As in the case of anomalies, determine the cause and whether its direction should be changed. Such course corrections are a means of providing guidance and focus, and they allow the team leader and employees to work together to improve the processes, services and products their organization provides.
Moving away from the use of targets and adopting expectations requires more than a change of analytics tools. It requires a change in attitude and in philosophy. For most managers, that also requires a paradigm shift. Those who want to lead rather than manage will find that transition not only necessary but critical.
Targets create an adversarial relationship in which the manager manipulates his staff by using a pass/fail situation in which no one truly wins.
Expectations, on the other hand, create a collaborative relationship in which the leader and workers evaluate the health of the services, processes and products offered, and look to improve them. Expectations allow everyone to look at an organization objectively, and with a common interest in improvement.