Three Different Things

Three different things

I almost called this blog post ‘Spot the Difference 2′ because it follows on from this old post. The reason for revisiting the arguments in that blog is because since the advent of our little friend Stick Child, the need to simplify some performance management arguments to a level even the Under-10s can grasp remains ever-present.

Okay, so flippancy aside (for now), you’ve recognised that the banana, giraffe and cartoon bomb are three different things. Are you as confident that you could differentiate between ‘priorities’, ‘measures’ and ‘numerical targets’ though? I only ask because these are also three different things, yet are still routinely conflated with each other; this leads to mental stumbling blocks for those trying to move beyond the targets culture in management.

So, to break it down…

Priorities are the things considered important. They are what the organisation places value upon. They reflect the aim (or an aim) of the system. They focus attention, direction, effort and activity. Having no priorities is bad, because it means the system is directionless.

But they’re NOT numerical targets!

Measures are just the bits of quantitative and qualitative information that we use to establish whether we are attaining priorities. Measures are really important, because if we use the right measures in the right way, we can understand what is happening within the system and identify opportunities to improve. The data from the measures help us make better decisions. Better decisions lead to better outcomes. Having no measures is bad, because without them, we can’t understand how the system is performing.

But they’re NOT numerical targets!

Numerical Targets are the random aspirational numbers that human beings invent in their heads because they think they need them to make people do a good job. Target setters aren’t necessarily bad people, but they forget some important points, like these:

  • Numerical targets are arbitrary.
  • Numerical targets do not provide a method or capacity for achieving priorities.
  • No numerical target is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour.

But they’re NOT priorities or measures!

Therefore, I argue that if you’re clear about your priorities and use appropriate measures, you’ve got what you need. The numerical targets simply don’t need to be there at all. They’re irrelevant and often make performance worse. So why have them?

Here’s an example. It should be easy to see that the priorities, measures and numerical targets in this table are three different things. Now, just imagine that the numerical targets aren’t there. What you’re left with is the useful stuff – priorities and measures.

But they’re NOT numerical targets!

Priorities Measures Targets table

Stick Child Three different things


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Remember all that recent Incontrovertible Evidence suggesting targets cause dysfunctional behaviour in policing? (Yes, I can feel your shock and surprise).

Well, the warnings that the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) issued were akin to your local friendly gas engineer putting one of these on a dodgy appliance…

gas warning notice

Yes, that means potential danger has been identified and you have been warned not to use the appliance because highly predictable adverse consequences are likely to ensue.

The PASC report is the targets equivalent of that gas engineer putting a prohibition notice on your dodgy appliance and warning you in the strongest possible terms:


It doesn’t get much clearer than that, does it?

So, don’t be like this genius…

Do Not Use - conversation


If you ignore the notice, guess what’s going to happen?

Do Not Use - Boom


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Why Binary Comparisons are Really Silly

Imagine having a rich resource of useful information at your fingertips, but then deliberately ignoring most of it for no logical reason whatsoever…

Binary conversation

No, I don’t understand either.

Poster: Binary conversation

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Weak Excuses for Using Binary Comparisons

Due to the popularity of my last ‘poster’ blog, here’s another…

Weak excuses for using binary comparisons

You can download a pdf of the poster here: Weak excuses for using binary comparisons.

Enjoy ;-)

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Get Help Now!

After all the heavy news coverage of recent days about the adverse impact of numerical targets within policing (e.g. PASC findings and the Metropolitan Police Federation report), I thought I’d lighten the mood with a #StickChild poster for you to laugh at:

SCSSI poster
You can download a pdf of the poster here: SCSSI poster

Enjoy! ;-)





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Incontrovertible Evidence

red hand1Today, on the 9th April 2014, the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published their report into allegations of police mis-recording of crime statistics. (The report - Caught Red-Handed: Why We Can’t Count on Police Recorded Crime Statistics – can be viewed here).

During the course of several weeks, the PASC considered written and oral evidence from serving and former police officers, academics, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), statisticians, subject matter experts, and others. (My written submission can be viewed here).

I thought I’d highlight a few salient points from the report, which lays much of the blame for mis-recording of crime stats directly at the feet of performance targets. It highlights:

  • Performance pressures associated with targets acting as perverse incentives. (paragraph 21)
  • An entrenched target culture, which persists to this day. (paragraph 73)
  • A conflict between achievement of targets and core policing values. (paragraph 88)
  • The pernicious effects of target cultures. (paragraph 80)

It also cites a 2010 report by the UK Statistics Authority, which warned:

“The existence of a target may change the behaviour of service providers in ways that have unexpected and unwanted side effects. There may be scope for manipulation or gaming”. (paragraph 80)

But wait, there’s more…

Commenting on the impact upon police officers’ sense of vocation and desire to serve the public as ‘dedicated and courageous professionals’, the Committee concludes targets:

“…tend to affect attitudes, erode data quality and to distort individual and institutional behaviour and priorities”. (paragraph 86)

Finally, in the ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ section, the document concludes with this unequivocal statement:

“The Home Office… should make clear in its guidance to PCCs that they should not set performance targets based on Police Recorded Crime data as this tends to distort recording practices and to create perverse incentives to misrecord crime. The evidence for this is incontrovertible. In the meantime, we deprecate such target setting in the strongest possible terms. (paragraph 40)

Pretty strong stuff. And that isn’t coming from me, or #StickChild, or someone with an axe to grind or political points to score - they’re the words of a cross-party committee of MPs.

Just saying.

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The Weather Man

Sometimes when Stick Child and his friends are out playing, they see an old man walking his dog. They call this man ‘The Weather Man’, because he always asks the stick children to help him predict the weather. He asks the children to pick a pebble from the nearby stream, then he looks at it carefully, before declaring whether tomorrow’s weather will be sunny or rainy, hot or cold, windy or calm.

Stick children and weather man

The stick children like the old man, but think his weather forecasting antics are rather odd and amusing, because he’s not usually right. He thinks that if the pebble is larger or smaller, a different colour or a different shape than the one yesterday, this enables him to predict what tomorrow’s weather will be like. Often they see him walking his dog in his T-shirt and Bermuda shorts in torrential rain, or sweltering in a thick duffle coat on a scorching hot day because he got it wrong again.

One day, the stick children asked the old man why he thought he could predict the weather by comparing pebbles and he told them it was because he’d always done it that way. He also said that it must be a good indicator of forthcoming weather patterns because sometimes his predictions had actually been correct.

The stick children felt a bit sorry for him because he believed in what he was doing, but they all knew that his method was no good. Then one of them had an idea – her Mummy had just bought a new television and she didn’t know what to do with the old one. The stick children had a meeting (not like the ones grown-ups have, which go on for several hours) and after two minutes they decided to ask the old man if he wanted the old television, so he could watch real weather forecasts.

Next time they saw the old man, they told him about their plan and he was really excited, because he’d never owned a television before. That afternoon, the stick children (and a stick parent) took the television round to his house and set it up. They showed him how to find the weather forecast and explained how weather experts like Stick Lucy the Weather Lady use real science for predicting what the weather will be like.

Stick children and TV

The old man was very impressed and thanked the stick children for their thoughtfulness. Now he knows there is a better way to understand and forecast the weather than by trying to use pebbles from the stream, which means he no longer gets caught in downpours in his Bermuda shorts. After realising this, he couldn’t believe anyone would ever try and use pebbles at all.

Stick Child’s Thought of the Day

For anyone who knows Stick Child, you’ll probably have already figured out that the weather analogy is all about understanding measures properly. The stones represent binary comparisons (i.e. a completely useless ‘method’ prone to giving wrong signals) whilst the proper weather forecast reflects the use of control charts and associated scientific methods for understanding data properly. Better methods of understanding data lead to better choices – what’s not to like?

Bear in mind that neither control charts nor television weather reports are always 100% accurate, but they use real science, so they’re a whole lot better than pulling pebbles out of a stream.

If the old man was prepared to change his method to something that actually works, so can you.

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