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I hit the target, but completely missed the goal

At the beginning of 2020 (which feels like a decade ago) we joined the #OneWord365 challenge. The idea was this word would set your tone for the year. Dinah chose enjoy, Hilary chose detach, and I chose consistent.

One of the ways I wanted to show my consistency was with my working out. I wanted to make progress and become more fit and healthy. So I came up with a 2020 challenge: run 1000 kms.

Here was my thought process: '1,000 km is a lot, but it's only 2.73km a day. That's less than 20 minutes of running a day. I can commit to 20 minutes per day. Easy, peasy.'

Narrator voice: But it was NOT easy, peasy.

I set up a run log and diligently kept track of what I ran and how many kms I should have done by that date. Seeing myself creep closer to the 1,000km target was extremely motivating. Here's a screenshot I strategically chose because I was doing quite well at the time (thanks lockdown!)

But, come November, I was 30km behind. How? I wasn't consistent. (The only thing I did consistently was worry about the challenge). 2.73km isn't a lot to run in one day. But when you don't run one day it becomes 5.5km. Which quickly becomes 8.25km, then 11km and so on.

The tyranny of metrics

There was a flow on effect of all this. Because I spent most of the year behind the pace, when I did go to the gym, I couldn't do a workout without feeling guilty that I wasn't running. For the first time in my life, I would go to the gym and stay on the treadmill. No stairstepper, no rowing, no weights. Because that didn't add kilometres towards the target.

Peter Drucker said, 'What gets measured gets managed'. I measured kilometres run, and that's what I spent 2020 managing.

This happens all the time in organisations. People rally behind a positive goal or vision, but the metrics are wrong and encourage behaviours that can run contrary to the goal. There are countless cases of unintended and perverse outcomes based on the metrics. 'What gets measured, gets managed.'

Here are four examples you might be familiar with:

  • Any quota system within law enforcement (speeding tickets / drink driving) such as when the Victoria Police officers were faking roadside breath tests to meet 'meaningless' targets.

  • Teachers 'teaching to the test' to make sure their standardised test scores stay up—even though we know standardised tests don't capture what's really valuable and don't take into account the complexities of the students' learning.

  • This Australian banking scandal where employees used their own money or bank money to illegitimately activate accounts to count towards sales targets.

  • The NHS waiting time targets for A&E: The NHS in England has withdrawn its four-hour A&E waiting time target, in part because it led to the wrong behaviour from staff. The target was for 95% of patients to be treated, discharged, admitted or transferred within four hours. A noble goal in theory. But as the clock ticked ever closer to the metric’s red-line, A&E staff changed their treatment sequencing away from those who’d been triaged as having the most urgent need, towards those who would impact the metric.

My 2020 target was to run 1000km. But the actual goal was to be more fit through being consistent. And 2020 was probably the most unfit I've ever been. So, I hit the target (1000.48km finished on 31 December), but completely missed the goal.

Don't be like me!

Create great KPIs

After setting a goal, choose the right KPIs (key performance indicators) to let you know if you're making progress. Here are three quick tips:

Avoid using one KPI

Every goal should have multiple ways to track and show progress, and they shouldn't all be quantitative. Having subjective and qualitative performance measures is always beneficial.

I wrongly fixated on one KPI—kilometres run. That alone wouldn't get me to my goal of being fitter and healthier. I needed to have other KPIs to ensure other behaviours were being tracked that measured my fitness and health. These might be time at gym not running, getting back into my sports, time it takes to run a kilometre, dietary habits.

Avoid 'metric fixation'

I obsessed over my run log, not recognising how detrimental it was to my goal. I turned down opportunities to be active, because it wasn't the 'right kind' of active (aka running).

American social psychologist Donald Campbell noted that reliance on measurement to incentivize behaviours leads almost inevitably to a corruption of the measures.

Focus on guiding improvement

Jerry Muller, author of The Tyranny of Metrics, suggests an important pivot is to shift the focus from measuring performance to guiding improvement. In The Tyranny of Metrics, Muller shows how teachers, doctors, researchers, and managers are driven to sacrifice the professional goals they value in order to improve their numbers.

Muller states that measurement can contribute to better performance, but only if the measures are designed to function in alliance with professional values rather than as an alternative to them. Good metrics cannot be detached from customs and practices but must depend on a willingness to immerse oneself in the work of these institutions.

1 Comment

Fantastic post Kristen - this is a current problem for some of my colleagues, arising from the historic structure of a key work programme. You've given me some good ideas on how we might resolve the situation. :-)

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