The risks of setting targets

 |  By: Steve Johnson In: Agency management


Are targets important?

What’s more, should targets be easily achievable, in order to not risk being demotivating? Or should they be stretch goals, to encourage everybody to push the boundaries?

And how do targets affect creativity? Knowing the answer to that would be particularly crucial for agencies in the creative, digital, design or marketing sectors.

The evidence for setting goals

A lot of research has taken place on this topic over the years. The evidence certainly leads to the conclusion that targets are good, for both productivity and creativity.

Science Direct, an academic scientific and medical site with 12 million subscription-based articles, notes that goal-setting is all about specific, difficult goals delivering higher performance than does merely urging individuals to do their best.

  • Goals focus attention and effort toward goal-relevant activities and away from other activities.
  • They energize individuals to exert greater effort on more challenging goals.
  • Goals increase the level of persistence that an individual will display in order to achieve the goal.
  • Creativity is reduced when no creativity goal is provided.

Motivation is clearly vital in the creativity area. Harvard Business Review came up with these Three Components of Creativity:

  • Expertise. Knowledge: technical, procedural and intellectual.
  • Creative thinking skills. How imaginative people are when approaching problems, and whether they persevere.
  • Motivation. An inner passion to solve a problem leads to far more creative solutions than do external rewards.

In the 1990s, Locke and Latham, two analysts in the task motivation field, refined five Principles of Effective Goal Setting that have stood the test of time.

  1. Clarity. A goal must be specific and clear.
  2. Challenge. An easy or tedious goal is demotivating. But keep a realistic balance: don’t expect anyone on your team to spin straw into gold.
  3. Commitment. Your employees have to understand and buy in to the goal from the outset.
  4. Feedback. Provide regular feedback throughout the whole process. This helps to keep the goal on track.
  5. Task complexity. Think about realistic timescales, and break down the process into sub-goals with regular reviews.

HBR would add something to the point about clarity. They wrote that irrespective of the actual targets set,

“It is far more important that whoever sets the goals also makes them clear to the organization and that these goals remain stable for a meaningful period of time. It is difficult, if not impossible, to work creatively toward a target if it keeps moving.”

Reducing the risks of setting targets

It is evident, therefore, that there are risks in setting targets for your team. How can you minimise them?

One big risk is if the team thinks the targets were arbitrarily set. If folks don’t believe they are grounded in reality, they don’t take them seriously. Why would they? An even bigger risk is the feeling of unfairness if some team members seem to have a harder target than others.

But how do you know whether a task is easy or difficult?

Synergist helps in smart target-setting. Having Synergist’s unified system that holds details of your:

  • jobs & projects
  • productive hours spent
  • clients
  • the resulting profitability

enables you to see at a glance what has worked well for you in the past and what hasn’t. It enables you to set realistic targets at last, and be able to justify them objectively.

That’s worth a lot, as two Managing Directors of businesses using Synergist told us:

“We're much better at setting targets now because it’s backed up by data. Before, it was all a bit top-down, and not always realistic enough”. 
[Electrical Safety UK Ltd]

“It’s also helped with fine-tuning targets. It’s removed all the debates and emotions – it’s all factual now. We discuss the benchmarks with each department”. 
[UK digital agency].