#58 targets

“But as soon as we formalize a rule of thumb into a target, it becomes a source of distortion.” – Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives.

We have an unhealthy obsession with measuring performance. There are two main reasons why we think we need to measure performance. 1) People are motivated to strive for their best when they are measured. 2) Measuring performance allows us to gauge who are the good, the mediocre and the bad, i.e. rank people. I understand the need to measure performance but at the same time, the act of measuring has the ability to distort behaviour.

In his book, Tim Harford talks about the 8 minute target for ambulance response rate. He said that at some point, the UK NHS ambulance team was measured based on whether they could reach the person in distress within 8 minutes. Tim gave a scenario: what if the ambulance was caught in traffic and missed the 8 minutes mark? In order to “meet the target”, the ambulance team could choose to ignore the person in distress and go to the next person in distress, hoping that they would reach the next person in distress in time. This is called “gaming the system”. The other option the ambulance team could choose is to ignore the target and go to the person in distress. At a later point, they could “massage” the numbers in order to meet the stipulated target on paper. This is called “lying to the system”. A person with proper moral bearings would prefer the second option because that is more humane. Then in this case, Tim argues, what is the point of the targetsif we hope that the people in the system ignore the targets?

Performance target itself can become a source of social engineering that can modify the way professionals behave. I would rather be judged to be performing poorly than to modify my behaviour in order to game the system. After all, we are first humans then creatures of the system that we built. So we should behave as humans and we should try to find the courage to rise above measure.  And we do so simply because we are more than numbers and statistics.


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