The Problem with Targets

Robbie Williams’ master stroke was releasing Millennium in 1998. By the time the 31st of December 1999 came around the song was well known, and was already an “oldie”. It easily became a defining sound at all Millennium parties, which no doubt was Robbie’s goal.

I have been in various meetings recently and the conversation has got round to what suitable post-2020 sustainability targets should be.

Yet I’m beginning to think that we should take a break from setting targets, goals or commitments (I’ll use the terms interchangeably) – the whole process is getting a bit cynical.

The problem is that we have become fixated by targets. Every event, campaign and topic feels the need to have one (or more), and those making them hardly even get 15 minutes of fame before we move on to the next issue. It’s no wonder that no-one seems to mind that excuses are already being made for all the 2020 targets that will not be reached. No one pays attention to the targets made five (or more) years ago – there is too much focus on the new ones.

Time for a year off?

Consequently, I have half a mind to take a sabbatical in 2020 just to avoid the noise. In the meantime we need a debate about why setting goals to drive sustainability issues isn’t necessarily the right thing to do in the first place.

The argument for why we should set ambitious goals is usually illustrated by a speech of John F Kennedy who, when launching the Apollo programme, said “we choose to go to the moon”. Its true that “we choose to build a rocket” does not have quite the same power to inspire. Yet going to the moon is the wrong analogy compared to todays sustainability challenges. The thing is, going to the moon is only a complicated problem. Deforestation, livelihoods and child labour are not.

From Globescan to Glouberman

One of the findings in the latest Globescan & SustainAbility 2017 Sustainability Leaders report looks like another of those big data small data simplifications. The experts who contributed to the report identify “Vision and Goals” as defining attributes of Corporate Leaders. There’s a place for both, but let’s not lump them together.

It’s now fifteen years since Glouberman and Zimmerman published their paper on complicated and complex systems, yet sustainability world still hasn’t fully realized the implications. Over time we have moved from tackling complicated sustainability problems to complex ones. But we continue using the approaches that work for the complicated problems. And we wonder why we aren’t making fast enough progress.

From Complicated to Complex

Complicated problems lend themselves to setting goals, preparing logframes, and executing detailed plans. The way to tackle complex problems is completely different, being about changing the circumstances, flexibility, flow, learning and adjusting.

Targets have a place in this, but they need to be reserved for the complicated problems. When it comes to tackling complex problems the way to advance is to set out a long term inspiring vision. Then be explicit about what contribution the organisation will make to solving the issues, and finally devote efforts to reporting upon the progress and impact on the ground.

Lets have more Vision

Frustration and cynicism about targets is setting in. I have been speaking to a lot of people recently who agree that the pendulum needs to swing back from our fixation with them. We need to spread the word, especially to funders of sustainability programmes. Hopefully in their next report Globespan and Sustainability can help inform this debate by going after the small data to help us all understand which are the leaders and companies who know when to be visionary and when to set goals.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that goals and visions can go together, but not often. Robbie Williams probably achieved his goal with Millennium, but the true visionary was Prince. The most memorable dance track of the Millennium party night was 1999. It was released in 1982.

One Reply to “The Problem with Targets”

  1. Hey Duncan –

    Thanks for an interesting read. As someone who espouses complexity theory in the sustainability space (indeed, I studied with Brenda!), I completely hear what you’re saying. Conversely, I’m also a big fan of targets (and have been giving a lot of thought to the emergent work on context-based water targets), so I’ll push back a bit here.

    I think there is a key distinction between targets and strategy that I’m not seeing in your argument. For me, targets are even more critical in an era of complexity. Let’s use your song analogy (which I like!). Assuming that Robbie or Prince were versed in WWF’s PPMS (or just SMART goal setting in general), we would have a target of “a rockin, popular anthem that everyone is chanting on the night of December 31st, 1999”. It gives us a fixed target to aim for…the question then becomes “how to get there” (i.e., strategy). It is in strategy that I feel complexity theory needs to live. It is the adaptive set of responses to a specific target, or to use your analogy, the decision by two artists to release songs at different times, in different genres of music, with different logic, to achieve the same target.

    Targets are not just a level of achievement, but also a direction of travel. They signal where to head, and how fast one needs to move. When it comes to water, this has been a major issue as the direction has been efficiency, which, without context, has often exacerbated water scarcity challenges. The SDGs begin to give us a common direction, but even still, need further clarity to be useful at the facility level. We have introduced context-based water targets in an effort to give everyone a common direction, while aligning with the SDGs. In short, we’re trying to put the call out for a “new year 2000” in the hopes that some artists come back with new songs.

    In an era where multiple systems are interacting and we are increasingly at sea, being buffeted by various forces, I feel that we need to continually adapt, adjust, modify strategy, not targets. In my estimation, if we don’t keep our eye on the horizon via target setting, we don’t even know which direction to paddle. After all, if the year 2000 hadn’t existed after all, neither would Robbie’s or Prince’s hits.


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