The blind leading the blind

My posting the other day on the blind pursuit of targets resulted in Paul Brayford pointing me towards the Systems Thinking Review website and its brilliant paper on A Tool too far: A Systems Perspective of Targets by Cox, Little and Clark, the highlights of which, for me, include:

They (targets) motivate people to do the wrong thing.

In almost every case the things that influence why it takes less or more time are not in control of the individual worker. It is something that is a product of the system

Targets keep you blind to the true performance of your service.

This realisation of how uncertain a world we live in and how much organisations assume they can ‘manage’ service delivery whilst knowing so little about the complex domain and systems thinking is terrifying. It then dawned on me that if as this paper comments

system performance is 95%  down to system conditions and only 5% to elements of performance attributable to the individual

then this is probably also true for leadership. It has always struck me that good leaders are probably just lucky that they inherit a system that is on the upward slope of an S curve. Good leaders move on before that S curve peaks and there reputation grows. All the textbooks about how to be a good leader are keeping you blind to the true behaviours which I would suggest are to become an essential part of the feedback loops in the system. Praise and encourage positive behaviours and dismiss and discourage the negative ones.

I’ll leave Cox, Little and Clark with the final words which resonate painfully true for me and a number of ex-work colleagues:

It means that leaders and their services were always dislocated from the work, and only ever connected by an illusion of control. The figures that the machine churned out told them great stories of success, and as they passed-down ever-increasing volumes of targets, their service users suffered and the staff just walked away.



  1. Good post.
    Ref the individual 5%; this is why W Edwards Deming advocated doing away with performance reviews.

    Ref. the leadership figure, Pfeffer and Sutton have some numbers somewhere – a bit over 5% from memory, but not much.

    The US management literature seems to have only one narrative form; leadership. Even Dave Snowden had to adopt it for his HBR article. It must be a massive limitation on what they can do, and how they think.

    Ref. the targets and systems point. It is dreadful to draw out a system flow diagram and then highlight the target. You see just how little it reflects system performance. I had some art school students who did a project on adoption, and it was heartbreaking to look at the flow and look at the target.

  2. It has become a sort of style to set target and then start working. I strongly believe that knowledge workers (KMers)should not be doing so. KMers are the facilitators and KM is a continuous process.
    By setting the target they become keen to close the project/ task with the help of projecting themselves as smart enough and to get a better rating in the performance appraisal.
    In the process they expose what is not to be exposed and hide what is not to be hidden.
    Aren’t we goofing up the whole concept of KM?

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