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


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.
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8 Responses to Three Different Things

  1. Fiscalshare says:

    Reblogged this on FiscalShare and commented:
    I have a deep appreciation for Simon Guilfoyle’s blog. His insights into numerical targets in policing apply equally the tyranny of high stakes testing in education and the dysfunctional behavior (cheating, teaching to the test) it causes.

  2. ThinkPurpose says:

    I can’t be doing with priorities, sorry.
    I’ve been up to my eyes in priorities in the Council, Key Priorities, Strategic Priorities, all sorts. And all complete bollocks.
    They changed according to who was in charge, political or staff, so I just didn’t care in the end because THEY CLEARLY WEREN’T PRIORITIES. If they change that often they are not priorities. They are things chosen and written down, not something to pay attention to in the end.
    And there was ALWAYS more than one priority! That to me showed that the WEREN’T.
    Imagine you wake up in the middle of the night to the smoke alarm going off , you smell smoke. WHAT’S YOUR PRIORITY?
    If you have loved ones, it’s get them out safely. One priority. Nothing else until they’re out, next is ring the fire brigade.
    I’ve worked in places with 7 or 9 priories, this is cack, theyre clearly not priorities when they can’t decide between bloody 9 of them.

    The only time I’ve seen something that was rock solid and real was when I found Purpose. I get purpose.

    Other than that, awesome as always

    • I like what you say. Maybe I should have stuck to ‘purpose’ to describe what I meant, rather than ‘priorities’. In Intelligent Policing (shameless book plug) I try to make similar points. I’ve definitely felt your pain…your comment ‘THEY CLEARLY WEREN’T PRIORITIES’ sums it up.

      • Christer Hedlund says:

        I like the Three Different Things and I can agree with your answer, that purpose might have been a better idea. However even if you have a purpose you still have to have get your priorities straight. I also have worked in organisations where everything was a priority, an equal priority, given the same value, and sadly with no reference to purpose at all. Maybe it is the same as with the three musketeers, they were in fact four, so purpose might be like D’artagnan, the fourth Thing.

  3. Damian says:

    What does ‘tackle crime’ mean?

    • I knew I shouldn’t have used that as an example! It’s a fair question, but in order to avoid having to include a massive disclaimer covering how much influence the police have on crime rates, how accurately it is recorded, what the policing mission is, whether crime rates should be used as a definer of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ police performance at all (it shouldn’t), where non-police interventions, societal influences and political context affect how crime is or isn’t ‘tackled’, how you measure what you prevent (you can’t) etc etc, in the context of that table can we just take it to simply mean something like ‘the police trying to prevent crime from happening and solving it when it does happen’. I appreciate this is simplistic (and I might well blog about crime rates in a future post), but this blog post is really about the conflation of commonly used terms, rather than trying to determine the definitive description of the ‘priority’ provided to illustrate the difference between priorities, measures and targets.


  4. IanHesky says:

    Cracking reply from ThinkPurpose, I think you fairly sum it up! Two things stand out, too many priorities, and the links to meaning and purpose. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ should never outdo the ‘why!’

    • Yep, I agree – if you get chance, have a look at the section with my ‘Policy Roulette Wheel’ from page 101 of Intelligent Policing, which covers the issues surrounding too many, or arbitrary, or outdated, priorities.

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