How To Win Any Argument

There is a technique which some people seem to think is capable of winning any argument – even when faced with a compelling and well-evidenced line of reasoning. To fully appreciate the unparalleled awesomeness of this tactic, you have to see it in action; therefore I’ve chosen a pretty defensible statement (i.e. ‘Pigs can’t fly’) to demonstrate how it works.

Let the fun begin…

pigs fly 1pigs fly 2

Powerful tactic, isn’t it? Why waste time relying upon actual evidence to build an argument, when you can just finish a debate by stuffing your fists in your ears, or closing your eyes until the horrible monster has gone away?

Having experienced a few of these types of interactions of late whilst debating the effect of numerical targets, I thought it would be worth laying out a few key points about my stance, and invite debate (unless you’re considering reverting to Stick Person Mode, as above).

1st Point

I say: no numerical target is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour.

I don’t say: everyone who has ever been subject to numerical targets is guaranteed to engage in dysfunctional behaviour.

There is a difference. I’ve been subject to targets but I’ve always ignored them and just gotten on with my job. The figures tend to look after themselves if you do the right thing, anyway. Pointing out that not everyone who jumps in front of a bus necessarily dies doesn’t mean it becomes a good idea to jump in front of a bus.

2nd Point

Okay, so let’s labour the use of the word ’cause’. Does, ‘is known to act as a catalyst’ help if I use that instead? The fact is that there’s stacks of evidence which indicates numerical targets cause / initiate / trigger / act as a catalyst for / are found at the root of… DYSFUNCTIONAL BEHAVIOUR. Okay?

3rd Point

It’s not the targets’ fault – it’s the way they’re applied”.

(Or, ‘they were the wrong sort of targets’ / ‘there were too many’ / ‘too few’).

That old chestnut. So, how do you apply a performance management feature that has a proven track record of causing dysfunctional behaviour, without it causing dysfunctional behaviour?

People insist numerical targets aren’t the cause of the dysfunctional behaviour we have seen time and time again in hospitals, schools and elsewhere; that the targets are neutral and it is bad people simply choosing to engage in deviant behaviour. Sure, everyone has a choice (see 1st point), but are our public institutions stuffed full of bad, dishonest people, intent on lying and cheating because they derive a greater sense of satisfaction from attaining some arbitrary number at the expense of society? I find that hard to believe.

Targets are far from neutral. Whether you agree with them or not, they are expressly designed and intended to change behaviour.

4th Point

Scandals involving dysfunctional behaviour associated with numerical targets are regularly in the news, yet when leaping to the defence of targets, people use excuses such as:

“It wasn’t the targets – it’s ‘X’ that’s to blame! (e.g. lack of leadership / toxic organisational culture / bullying / delete as applicable).

Yeah, that’ll do it too of course! I’m not saying that those other things can’t cause serious harm, am I? Take the Francis Inquiry for example – you can tick them all off the list. But targets were explicitly listed in his report as a contributory factor. So why deny it? You don’t hear people defending the other common causes of dysfunctional behaviour and catastrophic organisational failings, do you? Imagine it: ‘Leave our bullying practices alone – it’s the way the bullying was implemented that caused the problem, not the actual bullying!”

5th Point

“In God we trust – all others bring data”.

This quote is attributed to W. Edwards Deming (although others lay claim to it and I can’t find the definitive source – help!) You wouldn’t come to a gun fight armed with a knife, so why do some people pontificate about targets not being responsible for causing dysfunctional behaviour when they have no evidence to support that position, particularly in the face of overwhelming evidence that they do cause it – lots of it – time and time again?

For good measure, here’s some evidence that numerical targets are responsible for loads of dysfunctional behaviour…

A&E 4 hour target gaming / More NHS stuff / loads more here

Go on – don’t pretend it isn’t there. Look at it! LOOOOKKKK AT IIITTTTT!!!!!

So… again. If anyone knows of a numerical target that isn’t arbitrary and is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour, bring out some evidence to support a counter argument.

Don’t be like this guy:

scream - targets

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
This entry was posted in Systems thinking. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to How To Win Any Argument

  1. Julie says:

    Visited a large processing site today run by Home Office staff. Saw lots of evidence of what you are discussing……calls targeted to only take 4 mins was defended to me!

  2. John says:

    Simon, I’m a big fan. But here is my problem. Even if your boss says, “Listen I’m not in to targets and all that dysfunctional behaviour they cause – but I am keen to see what metrics you’re using to support improvement of your system and support you make it better”. “Great!” you might think. Wind on several weeks for the next appraisal with your boss. “Been a bit disappointing, hasn’t it? This improvement metric we chose about wait times in A&E? We both know seeing and treating people quickly is our purpose – saves lives even – but your system is stuck at 90% seen in 4 hours. Our comparator hospitals regularly achieve over 95%. Sorry I cant preside over you killing people unnecessarily any longer. I’m moving you on.” How did my metric for measuring for improvement suddenly morph in to a target? How can you stop it happening? Even with a boss who ‘gets it’?

    • It’s all about the thinking isn’t it? In a nightmarish post-targets world there’s still the danger that those who can’t/won’t think differently will do exactly the sort of thing you describe, or say “Your control chart is worse than last year’s control chart!”

      The first step is combating the problem is in recognising it is likely to occur, so you’re a step ahead already. I guess the next is to continuously educate those around us so that the different way of thinking eventually becomes the norm.

  3. Dave Hasney says:

    Reblogged this on Dave's Bankside Babble and commented:
    The head up arse and brain in neutral factor of working with numerical targets as an effective management measure…

  4. Pingback: How To Win Any Argument | Policing news |

  5. Bampot nation says:

    Simon. I’ve recently come across your blog and it’s been one of those “wow” moments when you realise someone else gets it ! Although I must say you put it more eloquently than I ever could.
    You’d be positively apoplectic if you saw the performance spreadsheet I was given the other day. Just a sheet of percentages for each month for each division of the business of a particular area of the business. Nothing to say what it’s been measured against just the percentages and no raw data. Needless to say everything under the target was red and over the target was green. But nobody could tell me what the 33% or the 25% or the 66.67% related to. Meaningless data. 33% of 3 means to “failures to meet the target” but does not consider quality of service or by how much the target was missed but who cares about that, we have a pretty spreadsheet with colours and percentages.
    As an example of how it relates to police performance data; let’s consider that you have 3 response calls that you need to get to in 15 minutes. You get to 2 of them in 15 min and 1 sec and you get to the 3rd call in say 4 minutes. The success rate vs the target response time would obviously be 33% but how do you measure success if the two calls that were outside the target time (by 1 second) led to arrests, convictions and victim satisfaction with no overtime incurred whilst the call you attended in 4 minutes was rushed job, nobody arrested, poor investigation, no conviction and victim complaining to IPCC, MP, the media et al because of poor police performance (but police got there within the target and the spreadsheet will be in green)
    Makes you think really……

    Keep up the blogs, fantastic stuff 🙂


  6. Alan Stanton says:

    There are many reasons for continuing to believe in flying pigs than simple faith. Some examples:

    § I’ve never seen a winged pig but I know reliable trustworthy people who assure me it’s so.
    § Our organisation’s motto is: >>> Build pigs’ nests and they will come! <<< So perhaps we haven't yet built nests which are large and sturdy enough to tempt the winged porkers away from their usual trees.
    § We know pigs don't fly. But, hey, I'm the CEO of BaconAir and I've got children to feed and a mortgage to pay; and I employ hundreds of staff.
    § My boss is certain that the flying pig will soon be discovered. He's a fantastically rich Ruritanian Oligarch who believes this hogwash and pays me a lot of money to do what he says. You think I'm gonna squeal?
    § It's true that the evidence against airborne rashers is strong. But there's always a margin of doubt. After all, Columbus thought he was arriving in India. They even said toasters couldn't fly but didn't they become a highly successful software program?
    § We haven't a clue what flies and what doesn't. But we've paid hundreds of thousands to our world-leading consultants Ham, Hock, Gammon and Chorizo, They know.

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