If you can measure it, you can improve it.  If you are measured, you will game it.

If you can measure it, you can improve it.

Dr J is one of the greatest basketball players ever.  Julius Winfield Erving 11, better known as Dr J won 3 NBA championships, 4 most valuable player awards and is an inductee of the Basketball Hall of Fame.  In 1994 Sports Illustrated named him one of the 40 most important athletes of all time.  He has a reputation for bringing artistry to the slam dunk.

I saw him speak at a Converse basketball shoe marketing conference in the 1990s, just after he’d retired.  He described his upbringing in New York.  He said whatever he did as a kid, he continually tried to improve.  If his mother sent him to the store to buy milk he would add excitement to the chore by trying to beat his personal best running to and from the shops and up and down stairs to the apartment.  Through measurement came both improvement in speed, and satisfaction of growth.

If you are measured, you will game it, prioritising the targets even at the expense of the wellbeing of people and indeed companies.

Targets for schools is one prime example of this.  When the government set exam targets for school children commentators and experts pointed to the harmful outcomes for many pupils.  One National Union of Teachers report stated: “Teachers object passionately to the accountability agenda imposed on them because of the consequences that flow from it. These are undermining creative teaching and generating labels which limit students’ learning. Crucially, they also threaten children’s self-esteem, confidence and mental health.”

Alfie Moore is an ex-cop who now works as a stand-up comedian.  His insider take on policing is both funny and sad.  One of his routines takes on the extreme outcomes of the target culture in the police.  He tells a story of a man who tries to report a burglary when new targets (to reduce the number of burglaries) have made recording more burglaries against policy (as recording them as other things means that the target gets met, even if the burglars continue to rob).  He says: “the guy shows the attending officer scratch marks around his patio door.  The cop says: ‘That’s badgers.  Badgers have done that.’  And the guy says: ‘ But, they’ve been away with my 42-inch colour TV.’  The cop replies: ‘Must have been two of them.  Sometimes they’ll work in gangs.’”  This month he commented on Twitter on a story that a retired police officer had carried out breathalyser tests on himself to meet targets: “Well they did say that meeting performance targets was a priority”. 

So, targets are good, and targets are bad.  Without targets how can you measure progress, but with targets you have to be aware of the externalities of people only focussing on what is measured. 

One tactic is the anti-target. As well as setting an objective also set an anti-goal.  Be clear on what you don’t want the team to deliver? 

Andrew Wilkinson, successful entrepreneur and founder of Tiny Capital, set out his schedule of anti-goals on Medium in 2007.  The list of 7 includes: “Never schedule morning meetings, sleep in when necessary” which I know would strike a chord with many people who are trapped in the alpha patriarchal schedules that suit the minority few who mainly set rules for business. 

If the goal is to drive profitability, then it might be crucial to set an anti-goal to ensure that you don’t optimise profit at the expense of growth (this might seem redundant but I’ve seen modelling optimisations to profit at all costs that ends up in a non-optimal position).

Measurement is good, but to be effective targets need context and nuance. 

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