Should targets be taboo? Here’s what business leaders think

The process of setting business goals is so established that it’s taken for granted in most companies.

Goals define much of our everyday lives, from the number of leads we’re required to generate per month to the number of to-dos we need to complete by the end of the day.

But what if we’re thinking about targets all wrong? What if setting rigid targets doesn’t actually help growth, development, or the bottom line?

The argument for a target-free business

One business that has loudly and proudly ditched business targets is the team project-management company Basecamp.

In their book It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work (HarperCollins, 2018), Jason Fried and David Heinemeier — CEO and CTO of Basecamp respectively — explain why they cut out goals from their company strategy:

“Doing great, creative work is hard enough. So is building a long-lasting sustainable business with happy employees. So why impose some arbitrary number to loom over your job, your salary, bonus, and kid’s college fund?

“Do we want to make things better? All the time. But do we want to maximise “better” through constantly chasing goals? No thanks. That’s why we don’t have goals at Basecamp. We simply do the best work we can on a daily basis.”

Nicola Barrett, Founder of beauty therapy business Prestige Intouch, also believes that businesses should scrap targets. She says that setting tough goals can actually deplete the quality of work that staff produce by putting them under unnecessary pressure. “Targets incentivise staff to rush the completion of their projects in order to meet KPIs,” she says. “When this happens, mistakes are made; things are not done properly and procedures are not adhered to.”

So how can a company without targets ensure that their teams still make progress?

Nicola believes that they should focus on doing less, and doing it to a higher standard. “It’s better to have one job done to perfection without a single complaint than having completed 5 mediocre tasks that inevitably receive criticism due to poor service and quality.”

How targets could still hit the mark

Not everyone believes that business targets are redundant in the modern-day workplace.

Andrew Firth, CEO and Founder of Leeds-based digital agency Ascensor, says that while having a goal-free culture wouldn’t necessarily stop staff from progressing, “they would have a better chance of meeting and exceeding objectives [with targets]. Targets are clear lines that can be measured. Whether they are reached or not, they provide a mechanism by which to review performance and set goals for the next period.”

Nicola Lloyd, Event Marketing Team Leader at Frank Recruitment Group, agrees. “It’s good for staff to have clear targets and a complete vision of what you want them to achieve, regardless of where they fit into a business.”

Nicola also asserts that targets can actually be good for team morale if those objectives are realistic and achievable. “If a team feels like it’s pulling towards a common goal,” she says, “each member of the team will feel a healthy sense of responsibility and accountability, motivating them to produce their best work.”

Taboos or to-dos?

The backlash against goals and targets stems from the problems that arise when a business assumes the importance of targets without considering the ‘why’ behind them.

CEO of Love Energy Savings, Phil Foster, believes that setting the right targets can help a business and its staff fly. “It’s not just a case of whether or not a target is achievable,” says Phil. “Employers and managers should think about whether the target has value, both for the individual and for the business as a whole.

“The best targets are those that you set in collaboration with the individual or team that will be tasked with reaching them. What is it that they want to achieve? How can you tie that in with the direction that the company is going in?

“If you can display that an employee’s actions will contribute to the wider success of the company,” Phil says, “that’s going to be far more motivating than just setting a goal for the sake of it.”