Be Careful What You Wish For

by Richard Saul

One of my first observations after moving to New Zealand was that this is a nation that is obsessed with competitive sport. And, not surprisingly, the use of sporting analogies. But when those analogies extended to business practices I couldn’t make the connection.

That was then.

Almost 25 years later, and here I am about make a sports analogy for setting business objectives, using a sport in which I have been accused of being periodically obsessed: outrigger canoe racing.

The 500-meter sprint is basically a drag race. It’s about getting from the start to the finish line before anyone else. Results from previous races are readily available on the internet, so setting targets against winning times is not rocket science. No, the analogy I am about to make goes further. But first you need a primer in paddling. I promise to keep it short.

Although this is simplified, there are three main factors in achieving and maintaining the speed you need from the canoe. The first is the forward motion you generate with each stroke. The second is the stroke rate. It is the combination of these two factors that determines boat speed. The third is stamina—your ability to maintain that combination of power and rate over the distance.

There is a fourth category for team events: timing. If any of the paddles enters the water before or after any of the others, the boat starts to wobble. The forward momentum is reduced and the canoe starts to slow down. Set the rating too high, there is a risk one paddler lacks the stamina to maintain that power/rate combination. Too slow, and you wind up at the end of the pack.

The need for setting personal objectives for power and stamina are obvious. And though there may be some personal benefits, your real motivation is to not let the team down during the final 100 meters. Setting the stroke rate, on the other hand, is a group effort and must account for the capabilities of each of the six paddlers on the team. Setting individual objectives for each paddler on his or her stroke rate would be self defeating.

Businesses are not like canoes. You can’t monitor metaphorical timing using Go Pros or video cameras. This is especially true with organizations with many layers of management, functions, and interrelationships. Yet management by objectives is still used to encourage peak performance from individuals. Bonus payments and or sales commissions are just two examples.

Although the negative effects of setting personal objectives will be harder to spot, they still exist. And, like rewarding individual team members on their stroke rate, they can be counterproductive.

I won’t try to make my own argument. I’ll call on some heavyweights for that, starting off with Deming himself. In the first part of his point 11b of his famous 14 points he said this: “Eliminate management by objectives.” The effects of this style of management was best summarised in an article published in May of 2002 in the Financial Times: It said, “The bonus scheme is unlikely to affect the intensity of his effort, but it will affect the intensity of his interest in how numbers that report that effort are compiled.” In other words, everyone will now strive to provide management with the numbers they want, regardless of any unintended consequences.

What’s the solution? Deming provides part of the answer in the rest of point 11b: “Substitute leadership.” A bit vague, perhaps? Look at the second of the eight quality management principles from which ISO 9001:2015 was derived. It says, “Leaders establish unity of purpose and direction of the organization. They should create and maintain the internal environment in which people can become fully involved in achieving the organization’s objectives.”

There is nothing in that statement, or any other part of ISO 9001 itself for that matter, that requires personal objectives. To the contrary, the focus is in achieving the organization’s objectives.

If personal objectives are out, what’s in? My suggestion is to have a look at a YouTube clip given by Dan Pink at a TED talk called “The Puzzle of Motivation.” Pink references many academic studies that identify what motivates people. The science, he argues, shows that, “For any task that called for even rudimentary cognitive skills, a larger reward led to poorer performance.” Pink points out that science shows that the three factors that most influenced performance were:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

I’d argue that bonus schemes don’t touch any of the above key points, particularly the last one. Conversely, I’d argue that for those competing as part of an outrigger canoe team, they absolutely nail it. Perhaps sports analogies for business situations have their place after all.


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