Workshop: Targets can help you to improve

Setting aspirations does not necessarily mean straightjacketing your team.

Do you love or hate targets? Do they keep you on track or annoy the hell out of you and stop you getting on with the real work?

Target setting is part of management life these days. The Government sets targets for those funded by and accountable to it; boards set business targets to judge performance, and sometimes pay; managers set their own targets to keep up with others' targets in the hope they can feel pleased about achieving something. It can all get a bit stressful.

So what is the value of targets? Targets help to set specific goals that should improve performance. This is why they can be valuable tools in management.

Targets help to sort out objectives and the goals needed to reach them. They can spell out what matters most to an organisation or a team: for example, delivering a service to a user group that has these aspects and this timeframe, or publishing material that reaches at least a certain percentage of the primary audience. But they don't have to determine the journeys and routes everyone has to take, or put everyone into straitjacket-like routines.

Setting a target does not mean trying to impose control on individuals who might prefer to take more imaginative routes than were envisaged to hit it. Innovative, even difficult behaviour in people striving to reach set goals may help not only to reach them but also to surpass them. Given such freedom, research shows, staff can improve the performance of an organisation rather than hamper it. On the other hand, poorly set targets can encourage everyone to go for the easy option, which discourages people from trying their best. All this challenges a manager's competence.

Targets can create healthy competition in performance terms, but they can also destroy collaboration. Team targets can create a 'working together' atmosphere, and individual targets, especially those based on reward with additional pay, can help some achieve and others not. This misses the point of setting a target altogether: improving everyone's performance.

Bear in mind these do's and don'ts: do set a few good targets related to customer benefits, but don't be too restrictive on how they are attained; do keep them rooted in the world of what can be made to happen rather than dream fulfilment; don't forget to create learning opportunities from what is achieved, and aim always to improve how you do things.

- Elaine Willis is a consultant and coach specialising in voluntary sector management.

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