Stop saying “targets.” Say this instead
No one likes the “Semantic Police,” but I will be the Semantic Police today. I keep noticing how much word choice shapes our world and our outcomes. Examining semantics may seem nitpicky, but it is important.
Today’s word is “target.” I’m noticing that this word can have unintended negative consequences in many organizations. I hear the terms “target,” “goals,” and “on track,” and I observe their impact on actions and business results.
This family of words encourages people to prove their worthiness, and that’s where it becomes personal. Once it becomes personal, there’s less room to be wrong, resulting in a lower possibility of learning.
I was curious about what a target really is and why companies need to know if a target is “on track.” Presumably, the main reason to “track progress” is to take corrective action if something is “off track.” What kind of action? Is it to push people harder if they’re “off track”? Or pivot the investment?
I wondered, “Where do targets come from?” Targets are usually set based on the estimated size of an opportunity. “Performance” is about how effectively we’re taking advantage of the opportunity. As we learn more over time, our assessment of the opportunity becomes more accurate.
The opportunity size is much more variable than the variability of execution. The bulk of a company’s risk is betting on the opportunity, not the execution. So why do companies spend inordinately more time tracking execution against ‘targets’ instead of re-assessing whether the opportunity is worth the investment?
Measuring against “targets” is based on the Industrial Revolution era assumption that “we know what to do, now just go do it,” also known as “predict, plan, execute.” With this assumption in place, the work of management is to monitor progress and possibly intervene to ensure people are doing a good job.
In today’s world (dare I say VUCA?), “knowing what to do” is constantly evolving and changing fast. We can no longer “predict and plan”; we now need to “sense and respond.” And in a world where we sense and respond, tracking against a target is useless. What is useful is reassessing the opportunity at hand (sense) and shifting energy as seamlessly as possible (respond).
The ability to “Sense and Respond” rests on the ability to learn, which assumes we can be wrong. The buzzword today is “failure.” Oh, “failure,” how I despise this word. Hear my whole rant on the word “failure” here. But for our purposes here, what is a failure? In a predict & plan world, you can fail to track against the target, and this failure happens more often than people admit. But in a sense & respond world, when we’re always learning and evolving our thinking, can you fail? Being wrong is “failure,” but if we expect to prove ourselves wrong, is it really failure?
When we use the word “target,” how willingly would you share your “failure” to meet a “performance target” with senior management? Would you be more willing to share a “learning” about the size of an “opportunity”? In the latter, you were still wrong about your original estimate of the size of the opportunity. But it feels less personal because it’s not an indictment of your ability; it’s the expected progression after performing activities that yield more information.
What will execs do with this tracking information? What decisions or actions will they take when performance is “off-track”? You wouldn’t cut an investment in a good opportunity just because the team can’t execute, would you?
Or is the ability to execute acting as a proxy indicator of whether or not the opportunity is viable? If performance is a proxy for opportunity assessment, that unfairly scapegoats workers' ability for failure to meet an unattainable target. Could this be a contributor to workplace burnout?
Stop conflating “opportunity size” with “performance.” Separate these two conversations, with more focus on the “opportunity size” because that’s where you’ll find the biggest risk and reward.
When we shift from the terms “performance targets” and “on-track” to “opportunity size,” it creates an environment where we can make pivot decisions very quickly. First, the information now focuses on the true investment criteria: the opportunity, not the performance. Second, it opens the door to more possibilities when people don’t massage the numbers to make themselves look good. People have open, honest discussions about “opportunity size” when it’s not about “personal performance.”
Instead of asking: “How are we tracking against the target?”
Try: “What have we learned, and how does it change our assessment of the opportunity size?”
If someone asks you a “target” question, shift the context of your answer like this:
Question: “How are you tracking against the target?”
Answer: “We’ve learned some things that change our assessment of the opportunity. Here’s what we learned, and he’s the impact on the opportunity size. We have captured X% of the opportunity.”
Language drives behavior. Behavior drives results.