Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Arguments over goal setting

Goal setting is at the heart of performance management. Without a goal or a way of measuring what constitutes success, performance cannot be managed or improved.

This blog is no stranger to comments about what can or cannot be measured; and it is true – some things cannot be. An unexpected sunny day lifts everyone’s spirits and raises performance without anyone even thinking about it. The sincere comment given to a co-worker about a job well done isn’t designed to be measured, but is just part of a good relationship and recognition of good work.

It has been shown, however, that goals and measurement are powerful weapons in improving performance. Yet stories abound about instances where targets and goals have led to problems; the health service is a favourite with reports about inflexible targets lead to poor patient care. A few of these have been sent to me as if to say “see – that’s what happens when you try to set targets!”

A fascinating paper landed on my desk not long ago that in my view made welcome reading. The authors – Locke and Latham - raise some interesting points about the differences between journalism and the rigors of good social science. One is free to be as emotional and anecdotal as it wishes, whilst the other has standards and aims to use dispassionate and accurate language to argue a point. They quote Campbell and Stanley (1963) who pointed out that:
“Any appearance of absolute knowledge or intrinsic [i.e., general] knowledge about singular isolated objects is found to be illusory upon analysis.”


Only this evening I was up against what seemed to be the injustice of those who have targets to meet. A road traffic incident that might once have been arguable was briskly and efficiently chalked up with another ticket and another day in court. It will no doubt end in more bureaucracy than it is worth but targets have been met and at least two people in uniform went away happy.

Of course there is an alternative: that we park where we want to and pedestrians take their chances. It’s annoying, but maybe goals have their value.

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