Are Targets a Waste of Time?

Do you recognise these two men?

You ought to; they are quite famous. Well, their business is more famous than they are.

‘A management team distracted by a series of short-term targets is as pointless as a dieter stepping on a scale every half-hour’

Larry Page (left) & Sergey Brin (right), Google co-founders,
in a letter to potential investors, ahead of their IPO.

Back in November, the UK Government made a big deal of abandoning the previous Government’s targets and replacing them with milestones. Whilst officials jumped through hoops to draw a distinction, journalists seemed left with the impression of sophistry*.

The value of targets is in doubt

TargetFor several years, I thought that the wise saying ‘what gets measured gets managed’ originated with the colleague (Bob Baker) from whom I first heard it. A couple of years into my career, it struck me as profound.  And it still does – I just know that Bob was not the first to say it!  The web seems to ascribe it to Peter Drucker, which is very plausible, but un-referenced, so any facts would be welcome, please.

What Bob and Peter are trying to tell me is that we manage to the targets we set, which is why the wrong targets can fail us in public service and why short-term targets can fail us in the long term.

The value of planning is not in doubt

Western governments hardly subscribe to the old Soviet ‘Five Year Plan’ approach – which I feel ought to be in bold type.  But none of them eschew planning altogether.  It is a necessary part of governing and governance.  I doubt too that Google has a great master plan, but am confident that the directors have a clear idea about the direction they want to take the business in and the key steps to getting it there.

Planning is an essential component of managing anything.  The art is to know how much certainty to aim for and how much flexibility to leave.

Plans and Targets

I rather agree with Neil Russell-Jones, in his Business Planning Pocketbook.

‘Every plan must contain targets so that you can measure progress and, ultimately, the success of the plan.’

So here’s the deal

Hear hear, Neil.  We promised you some ideas about coping in a tough economy.  You may be tempted to get your head down and ‘get on with it’. That could be a mistake.  Now, more than ever, it is important to take time out to plan, and to set appropriate targets.  Targets can motivate your team when you hit them, and give you valuable feedback when you don’t.

Some Management Pocketbooks you might value

The Business Planning Pocketbook

The Improving Profitability Pocketbook

The Improving Efficiency Pocketbook

The Strategy Pocketbook

The Managing Budgets Pocketbook


* On a wry note, I am surprised that one of the Prime Minister’s nineteen special advisors did not point out that the word ‘milestones’ is dangerously close to ‘millstones’.

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