Targets, Strategies and Priorities
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

You can't turn around these days without bumping into a strategy.

I have two problems with most strategy documents: they tell us what we don't need to know, and they don't tell us what we do need to know.

The same is true of almost all management targets, whether we are talking about individual performance or targets for a department or company.

Most of the time, we know what needs to be done.

Seriously. This is such an obvious point that people seem to miss it. If I am a Teacher, I want the children to learn. If I am a Doctor, I want the patients to get better. Wherever I work, I know there are limited resources and I need to keep within a budget. I don't need a management consultant or a set of performance targets to tell me this. If I did need it, I shouldn't be doing the job.

What I do need is two things.

The first thing I need to be told is what doesn't need to be done. What can I ignore completely? What is unimportant? What is being taken care of by someone else? This is usually fairly straightforward

I also need to be told what to do if I have to choose between two targets: if I cannot achieve both, which is the more important? This is much more difficult.

In addition, if things go really well and I am ultra-efficient, I might be expecting to achieve all the targets easily - what then do I aim for? In other words, I need to know what the priorities are, even if I under- or over-achieve.

In brief, we need fewer strategies, fewer targets, and more priorities.

Strategies

This is not to say there is no value in stating what needs to be done ("We need to build more houses") - but a statement of a goal is not a strategy. Even a target, a specific goal, ("We need to build 10% more houses") is not a strategy.

Of course, sometimes we need a strategy - when there is a genuine disagreement over what needs to be done. In the area of drug addiction, there are several choices to be made: do we concentrate on abstinence or harm reduction, on improved policing or decriminalisation? These are vital, strategic decisions.

Most of the documents we call 'strategies' don't actually deal with strategic questions. In housing, do we build on greenfield or brownfield sites? Of course, we have to do both. The question is not strategic, but administrative (See Note 1). The issue is partly about which one we prefer, but mainly about which is - or can be made - available, what are the relative costs, and what are the relative time-scales for redevelopment.

Targets

There is an old saying: the man with one watch knows the time; the man with two watches is never sure. If you have one aim, you know what you have to do; if you have two aims, you cannot be sure. At least, you cannot be sure if you are told that both aims have the same priority. Given a choice between the two, which do you choose?

In my experience, this vital question is usually ducked. The conversation goes, "Which target is the more important?" "I can't answer that question - they are both essential."

This is not, as it is often seen, 'tough management' - holding firm to the essentials, even when it is difficult. It is a failure of management: a failure to understand what is needed, and a failure to guide the staff.

The truth is that in the real world, choices have to be made between different targets. The question is not whether I will choose between different targets, but how I will do it - and whether the management will help me and inform my choices, or leave me guessing.

If I were cynical, I might suspect that the reason behind this common business practice is not the need to focus all activity on the business essentials (or whatever the current jargon might say), but the need to protect the senior managment from criticism when the junior staff fail to deliver on all the targets.

To achieve anything, I have to prioritise. If the management does not make the priorities clear, then the junior staff will be guessing and inventing priorities - which may or may not be in line with the corporate priorities.

Magic Targets

But the problem is actually much worse than this.

By refusing to prioritise targets, we do not empower the staff to make the correct judgement when they are forced to choose between targets, so opportunities to bring the work being done into line with the corporate objectives are being lost.

But not only do the targets fail to help the workers do their jobs the way the business wants them to - very often, the targets get in the way of the jobs they do.

Put bluntly, unless targets are used intelligently to prioritise tasks, then at best the targets fail to help, and at worst they interfere with achieving the real goals.

As they are generally used, targets can only distort performance. They can only get in the way.

If I am halfway competent in my job, I know what needs to be done. If I am a bricklayer, I probably have a pretty good idea that my boss wants me to lay bricks. And, yes, it has to be done safely, meeting the relevant quality standards, and all the rest, but this is all a part of laying bricks. It is what I do.

Without a target, I simply do my job. With a target, I know how many bricks you expect me to lay in a day. If I am close to my target halfway through the afternoon, I can ease off. Because what matters is now no longer doing a good job - what matters is achieving the target.

The reply usually comes back that this works as I describe when the worker is motivated and wants to do a good job. Actually, I think most workers start off by wanting to do a good job. They get demotivated when they discover that a good job is ignored and the only thing which matters is meeting the targets.

And, speaking personally, if I have a member of staff who only wants to do the minimum possible, I want to know this so I can do something about it. The target may hid the fact that they don't care about the job, but it cannot change the underlying reality.

Part of the problem is that targets are almost always magic numbers, picked out of thin air. If the target is a real one, people will work towards it anyway. You only have to impose targets if they are meaningless.

Perhaps none of this would matter too much if it only affected how fast the houses go up. But it affects all our lives - it affects the life and death decisions being made by hospitals, social care units, police services... by everyone.

Let's say that hospitals have a target to reduce Hospital-Acquired Infections by 95%. Reducing these infections is good, but why stop at 95%? Why is 94% a failure but 95% a success? Will it feel like a success for the remaining 5% of patients who suffer, and sometimes die from, these infections? Why have we decided that (for this year, at least) this remaining 5% of patients is an acceptable failure rate?

If hospitals are not working to prevent Hospital-Acquired Infections, something is wrong. If they are, then a reduction of 95% is not a success.

Similar problems arise from the targets for waiting lists: instead of treating patients according to the medical priority, you are forced to perform minor and non-urgent procedures instead of major and urgent procedures simply because the targets have to be met. Patients suffer and die because of the targets, which were introduced with the aim of improving the care they are given.

Wherever you look, the conclusion is the same: made-up, magic number targets cannot assist performance, they can only interfere with it.

If the target tells me to do what I know needs to be done, I don't need the target. If it tells me to do something other than what needs to be done, the target is wrong, inappropriate and unhelpful. And if I don't know what needs to be done, the answer is not to give me a target - the answer is to train me or sack me. Targets are not a substitute for a competent workforce.

Priorities

There are two key points here. Firstly, targets can always be prioritised. Even essential things can be prioritised. Food, drink and air are all essential, but if I take away all three from you, you will have no difficulty in prioritising your response.

Secondly, targets should usually be prioritised. Imagine a health authority has three aims: to keep within the budget, to increase the number of people treated by 8%, and to reduce waiting lists by a quarter. They may all be essential, but they can still be prioritised. This would be one way to do it:-

Given that set of priorities, I know what I need to focus on, and how to make decisions when I am forced to choose between the different aims.

Actually, to be properly useful, the list needs to be extended. It could be continued like this:-

And so on. Success would be defined as achieving priorities 1-9. A bonus scheme could be put in place for achieving priorities 1-12 or 1-15.

Note that the higher numbered priorities have value, even without a bonus scheme to reward them. If I am expecting to exceed the set targets (I'm confident of achieving priorities 1-9) and I am faced with the possibility of either cutting the waiting list by 40% or treating 10% more people, it tells me which to aim for. A normal set of targets does not give me any guidance on this question.

It is also worth noting that the achievement of targets is often influenced to a large degree by external factors - an unexpected influx of people, or a particularly bad influenza outbreak. Managers cannot realistically be expected to achieve their targets all the time. But a good manager can be expected to achieve the priorities in sequence: unless a disaster (a major unexpected event) happens late in the time-frame, a good manager will never fail to achieve priority n but succeed in achieving priority n+1. Operating within this framework, achieving the priorities in sequence is the sign of a good manager.

Footnote

(1) Of course, the same can be argued about the drugs policy: both abstinence and harm reduction are needed. But the arguments between the two camps is different: nobody arguing for greenfield or brownfield development denies that the other meets the need (delivers housing), while in the drugs field, each of the arguments says that the other position is mainly counter-productive. [Back]

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Copyright © 2009 Paul Hazelden
 
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