Steven's Blog

Blinkered by Targets

The best way to achieve performance targets is to ignore them. It’s improving performance form that counts.

When a runner is trying to improve performance, obsessing over targets like time and distance can blinker the athlete to improving their form. Without focus on proper running form, it does not matter how conscious a runner may be of their target time and distance, he or she cannot improve. Even if a runner manages to hit a target once, it is unlikely he or she will be able to do so again, consistently, and worse—will have little foundation for improving further.

You cannot improve with poor form as a base. Click To Tweet

The morass of KPIs and targets that are frequently the currency of corporate life can blinker leaders in much the same way. A senior-level vice-president of sales told me how she needs her staff to hit ambitious targets for Japan demanded by the company’s headquarters in an increasingly soft market for the company’s consumer product. Their retail distribution is saturated, and she thought her options for boosting numbers this quarter were limited to overselling in an unsustainable tactic. She recognizes that overselling would simply be “borrowing against next quarter’s results” in order to make this quarter’s number, and her staff recognizes it too.

She asked me how she can motivate her staff to carry out this plan at an upcoming offsite.

My answer? She can’t.

Who would possibly be excited by exchanging today’s problem for what would certainly be a worse version of the same in a few months? She agreed, but could see no other way out. I know she is a talented business person, she was simply blinkered by the KPIs and targets she was being pressured to achieve. So I told her the following:

“Forget about your targets and KPIs. Pretend just for a moment that you are an entrepreneur in the same business and you are facing the same situation. Would you take the same approach?”

“No,” she said.

“So what would you do instead?” I asked.

She thought for a moment silently, and then began to think aloud.

“Well, first I would stop servicing the bottom fifteen percent of our accounts. We would accept their orders, but I just would not use staff time to service them. I would take that staff and transfer them to the highest performing accounts. I believe that would result in a net increase in sales.”

Good!” I said. “What else would you do?”

“I would increase marketing support for our best performing accounts. That would give us the most bang for our marketing buck!”

“Excellent! What else?”

“I would drop the lowest performing products from our mix, and promote the best-performing ones.”

“Wonderful! What else?”

“I think our salespeople and their managers could get better results if they improved their methods. I would invest in improving their capabilities.”

“Great! What else?” I asked. She looked back at me. “What about new business? Are there any prospect accounts in Japan with whom you have no relationship?” I asked.

“No. We have been very successful in our reach in retail in Japan.” She sighed.

“Well, that’s excellent. However, what about non-retail accounts? What other types of businesses could you target? What other types of business models might you consider for growth?” I asked. I suggested three possibilities, which neither she nor anyone else in the company had ever considered. She was intrigued, and wrote them down.

“I don’t know if new business model ideas will pan out,” I said, “but if you and I can come up with three good ideas in the span of a short conversation, what would happen if you worked with your staff over a couple of hours to do the same?”

She agreed it was likely they would come up with a number of good ideas, some of which would probably work.

“OK. Now let’s talk about the agenda for your offsite.” I said. “You want to discuss which of your bottom accounts to let go, which of your top accounts to assign additional staff to support, what type of marketing you might do to support your best-performing accounts, what capabilities both sales managers and staff might improve and how to go about making those improvements, and what other business models you might consider, no matter how different from what you have done before. Does that sound good?”

She nodded approvingly as she wrote this agenda down.

“Now, do you think this is an offsite agenda that will motivate your staff, at least more than trying to persuade them fatalistically that their only and best option this quarter is to oversell?” She could hardly disagree.

As you read this, you probably think that all of the ideas suggested here are pretty obvious, and you are absolutely right. None of them are ground-breaking points of strategy. This vice-president came up with all of them except for the last one, which I suggested. It only required her ignoring KPIs and targets and focusing on proper business form.

If you work in a corporate business obsessed with KPIs and targets, you certainly are not alone. Yet, ask yourself whether as much attention is given to business form as to business targets. As a leader, you can change that.

In competitive Kyudo, Japanese archery, it is not good enough merely to hit the target to score a point like in Western archery. The athlete must also have good form. There is a lot of wisdom in that approach. And if you happen to be a runner trying to improve your performance, forget about time for a while, and focus on improving your running form. The time will improve as a natural result.


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