Setting targets is hugely important to keeping your projects on track – but sometimes they can become the real reason you’re not making progress.

If you’re old enough, or a fan of embarrassing TV moments, you might remember the time when the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair came face to face with the law of unintended consequences.

He was thrown.

This was shown live on BBC’s Question Time during a general election campaign in 2005 – when audience member Diana Church seized her moment to speak truth to power.

The object of her ire was silly targets. Mr Blair’s government had set a target for all GP surgeries to see patients within 48 hours.

Sounds laudable enough.

But what was happening in reality – as Mrs Church pointed out – was surgeries were simply refusing to take any appointments at all beyond 48 hours. Because that would adversely hit their figures.

On a Monday, you couldn’t book an appointment for a Thursday. Instead you had to join the daily melee. You had to ring first thing in the morning, wait for hours in the hope there was an appointment free. If there wasn’t, you joined the lottery the next day.

It was madness.

Here, the Evening Standard records the response of the PM.

“Mr Blair was left open-mouthed by her complaint. He said: ‘That is news to me. The whole purpose of this was that people used not to be able to get an appointment within 48 hours. Obviously, it shouldn’t work that way, because it would be absurd.’”

Afterwards, Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow said, “It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister does not know how his target for booking appointments is working on the ground.”

Well, the law of unintended consequences can do that to a person.

Where targets go wrong

You set out with good intentions, decide on a target to match and police those intentions and then, somewhere in the middle, the target becomes the purpose, even to the point of working against the original intent.

Just think of KPIs. Every company has them, every employee works to them. They are Key Performance Indicators but, in the way of things, they become synonymous with “targets”. You hit them or you miss them.

The point of KPIs is that they are indicators. It’s right there in the name. They are measures of progress. If you’re falling behind, the KPI is a rest stop where you can take five and seek out what needs to be done to remedy the situation. They aren’t targets. But they become targets and suddenly the world is is binary.

You’ve forgotten about remedies and corrections and seeking pragmatic solutions and exploring the “why” of the shortfall, instead you’re into success and failure mode.

Attack and defence. Black and white.

And the problem with targets isn’t abstract. Targets can kill.

That’s the headline of a Guardian article which again reflects on targets and the NHS.

Journalist Simon Caulkin, recalling a litany of NHS scandals, says, “Put abstractly, targets distort judgment, disenfranchise professionals and wreck morale. Put concretely, in services where lives are at stake – as in the NHS or child protection – targets kill.”

Yeah, OK. That’s bad. But we’re not running the NHS so we don’t have to lose sleep. But we do run ourselves, we do have our own goals and ambitions and timetables. So we do have to ponder to what extent our targets are destroying our purpose.

Remember the aim not the goal

I know this from personal experience. I’m a great one for listing a number of things I want to achieve every day. An hour on this. Then an hour on that. 3,000 words on a book, 1,000 words on a blog. Sooner or later, inevitably, the system falls apart.

One bad day, a flooded kitchen, a forgotten dentist appointment, or an unplanned call from work and the system falls apart.

The targets become so big, so complicated, so onerous that the time I should be doing work, I’m spending figuring out new targeting regimes, trying to make them both challenging and practical.

Here’s a couple more examples of where it goes wrong in the real world.

The Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust was so keen to hit its waiting time targets, it took money out the cleaning services, meaning 90 patients later died of a superbug.

Surrey Police so wanted to hit its crime clear-up target, it effectively abandoned police serious crime and focussed on the small stuff instead, like shoplifting.

The guru on all this is Dr W Edwards Deming.

Here’s what he thinks.

“If management sets quantitative targets and makes people’s job depend on meeting them, they will likely meet the targets – even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.”


“I achieved my goal but not my aim. That happens a lot, we honestly translate aims to goals. And then we do stupid things in the name of the goal that get in the way of the aim. We forget the aim sometimes and put the goal in its place.”

Writing to targets

When you’re using writing software, the app usually has a little gizmo so you can set your writing targets for the day. There’s no harm in this. If it works as an incentive, so much the better.

But you can’t become a slave to the target because you’ll just “miss the aim and put the goal in the place”, as Dr Deming says.

You’ll end up writing 2,000 words – but not your novel.

(A caveat here, sometimes writing rubbish does get the juices flowing but that is not a technique that can be made better by affixing a word count.)

The key to SMART goals

I’m going to mention how to set achievable targets and it may seem like I’m contradicting myself.

I’m going to talk about SMART goals which are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

But my get-out clause is ‘A for achievable’.

The goals have to be achievable. And that doesn’t mean achievable in a perfect world without interruption, or achievable if you really go for it, relentlessly. They have to be achievable in a pragmatic way, in a way that will keep you incentivised but not overwhelmed.

They have to be achievable on bad days and busy days.

Achievable in a way that marks progress but not (as we have explored) in a way that stymies progress, that works against you, that brings you to a halt and gets you nowhere.

Yes, you must show up. You must have a plan. That plan should be specific. It should be written down somewhere to prove your commitment. It must have deadlines. It must drive purpose. It must be a practical guide to implementation. It must promote self-discipline. It must keep you on the path to what you want to achieve.

How to get it right with targets

But it also has to be palatable, acceptable and do-able. It should guide and focus and shape your actions. It shouldn’t frogmarch you where you want to go against your will. Because that’s the moment you start writing gobbledygook just so you are rewarded with a meaningless “tick” from your mindless writing app.

Ask yourself, who are you kidding? How is this helping? Create a target that stretches but doesn’t break. Choose a target that gets you where you want to go in practical, pragmatic steps.

Be kind to yourself. Understand fully how best you work. Set targets that accommodate your busy life.

Remember what the prime minister said when he discovered what he wanted to achieve had been derailed by the method he had set to achieve it.

That’s absurd.