Are objectives (always) useful?


Be it individual or collective, quantitative or not, objectives are an integral component of our relationship with work. However, are they always sufficient to motivate employees to carry out their missions? Faced with the increasing autonomy of the new liberated management, will objectives soon be seen as archaic? Here’s a look at a tool with unexpected longevity with our Lab experts: Laetitia Vitaud and Luc Bretones.

Objectives are everywhere: from the to-do list scribbled on a post-it note to the PowerPoint presentation at a meeting for a new project launch, not to mention annual meetings that set the course for the coming year. For many employees, daily life is made up of a series of objectives to be reached, with varying degrees of difficulty. Quite different from a mere task left to the personal choice of each individual, the work objective is distinguished by the following features: the manager must clearly express it (it must be measurable and concrete), but also determine the means and the time allocated to accomplish it. It is only when these criteria are met that a mission becomes a clear objective for the employee.

Formalized by Peter Drucker in the 1950s, MBO (management by objectives) was first thought of for executives. The expert adapted his theory for MBO with more general management in the 1970s. He imagined a global objective that could be broken down and refined into other objectives specific to the teams according to their tasks within the company, in order to stimulate them more effectively than by simply assigning them tasks to perform. In the 1980s, the method was taken up and enriched by the American economist George T. Doran with SMART management, where objectives are defined by the following adjectives: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. This makes it possible to approach objectives at work much more serenely.

Too many objectives kill the objective

Underneath their apparent clarity, objectives also have their shortcomings. For example, the SMART method is criticized for pushing you to limit your ambitions in order to better achieve your very objectives. Not exactly the best way to develop a company. “Usually in a healthy company, a sales manager or team leader will not seek to minimize his objective”, analyzes Luc Bretones, CEO of NextGen. The underlying risk? Accumulating small objectives that will slow down the pace and add extra pressure on employees. If these objectives are not well adapted or if there are too many of them, they will drag employees down. But if they are too ambitious, the objectives can also have effects that go against their ambition. “When they are unrealistic, they generate stress among employees and provoke the feeling that they are not doing enough. The result is often deleterious for them and the company,” explains Laetitia Vitaud, author and speaker on the future of work.

Before making objectives the heart of management, it is imperative to judge them with sufficient hindsight. Laetitia points out the semantic implications of objectives, which should not be mixed up: “Even when quantified, an objective is not necessarily objective. It is this famous “objectivity” that we must question to understand the relevance of an objective. It is not because it is mathematical that it is clearer or more accurate. And yes, even the hard sciences have their biases! After this deconsecration, she notes that the objectives must be modulated according to the teams and the expectations attached to them. “In positions dedicated to innovation, it is preferable to have open-ended objectives, because innovation is synonymous with trial and error: there are also unforeseen events. If you set a benchmark for what is expected, you close off the possibilities of innovation. Open-ended positions go hand in hand with unrestricted objectives,” she recommends. The relevance of the objective is thus questioned, especially when it is not in line with the purpose of the job itself.

“Objectives are mainly a managerial reference point.”

The right to make mistakes drives continuous improvement

In addition to this divergence of purpose, objectives are often not a “booster” that helps motivate the workforce. For Luc Bretones, it is important to realize that objectives have little impact on employee commitment. “Often, the objective does not have much of an impact on team motivation. It is mainly a managerial reference point: the team sets itself an objective when it defines a project. It’s the project that motivates them, because it’s the reason for the group’s existence,” he adds. Projects with meaning and an open-ended goal are the kind of criteria that would encourage employees in a healthier way than simple numerical objectives!

Marion Fortin also likes to talk about Google’s 2016 studies. That year the American tech giant decided to study the factors that help teams achieve the best performance in depth. Google measured performance in all its forms, “objective, subjective, of the different parties, according to several factors depending on the structuring of the team, its composition in personalities, seniority, working in the same place or hybrid.”

Psychological safety outweighed all other factors, even in remote working.

Considerable collateral damages

In addition to employee discomfort, objectives can insidiously affect the company and the team. Luc sees one of the main flaws in the use of objectives as their tendency to individualize: “They generate internal competition within the team, a form of competition, and even jealousy that turns into predatory behavior. For example, in after-sales management, the objective of time taken to respond to a given customer is set within a short time frame. The employees will attempt to dispose of the customer as soon as they can, thus temporarily fulfilling the set objective, yet at the same time generating additional entropy in the system”. The objectives then become so-called “watermelon” KPIs: the employees reach them (the objectives set for them are fulfilled), all the whilst resorting to pernicious means that aggregately bring the company down. An individualized objective, with no proposed conditions of achievement to guide the employee, opens the way to the dictum “using the ends to justify the means”, which is not without consequences for the company when taken in a broader perspective than the individual.

Moreover, behind their personalized appearance, individualized objectives do not always take into account all the means and capacities that employees can invest to achieve them. Laetitia points out this perverse effect that impacts some employees severely: “The disadvantage of these objectives is that they ignore the fact that their distribution within a team can be unequal. For example, in a law firm, the objective is often to maximize billable hours, but this does not include the work assigned to some associates to recruit interns. These tasks are not part of the individual goals and yet they will take time, making the original goal more difficult to achieve.” Centered on the equation “one individual/one objective”, individualized objectives do not sufficiently take into account the adjustment variables for their achievement, nor a wide-angle vision allowing to better set their limits, from their implementation to their completion.

To avoid this situation, it is essential to target the hidden biases behind objectives, which are rarely taken into account: “We imagine that sales objectives are perfectly fair, but this is not true all the time. There are forms of discrimination, because the way in which clients and cases are distributed is not always objective. Therefore, revenue targets may very well be biased, because they do not take into account the upstream distribution of cases. Laetitia therefore pleads for team objectives and for an awareness of collective tasks, which play a role in the daily life of employees, sometimes preventing them from reaching their objectives.

Focus and collaboration: there is still some good in objectives

Not everything is to be discarded in the objective when it is well adjusted, but if everything is calibrated to the millimeter, it risks to burden co-workers and even infantilize them by dictating their actions. Objectives require adjustments more than ever, because since MBO and the SMART method, the world of work and management has evolved towards more autonomy for employees – seemingly in contradiction with an objective that frames their tasks from beginning to end. So how can we make the objective rhyme with liberated work? For Luc Bretones, the key is to keep track of it and take it for what it is: a benchmark. And like all benchmarks, they appear occasionally in the progress of a project. “Objectives are intermediate steps in reaching the star, they are clear, very focused, achievable and should be kept few (less than 5 per person). Ideally, it would be the teams themselves who propose their own objectives, with a project mode approach.”

For Luc, the most successful goals are those that, by being both ambitious and achievable, awaken the creativity of employees. “When I was managing service technicians, the objective was to achieve customer satisfaction. We were so far from that goal that we couldn’t think in a linear way. We came up with a breakthrough idea, unthinkable under standard rules, that allowed us to make a leap toward our goal,” he says. There’s nothing like talent and its on-the-ground expertise to move a project toward a goal. Rather than imposing an operation that does not take into account the reality of their tasks, it is relevant to let them take the lead on the process that will lead them to the achievement of the objective. When they do not dictate the modus operandi, but allow employees to invent their own rules, this is undoubtedly where objectives are the most stimulating.

“Collaboration and communication on the means used are one way of dealing with objectives in tomorrow’s management.”

Far from being in opposition to the notion of objectives, Laetitia also sees this freedom as a way of advancing autonomy at work without abandoning the latter, which continues to be a reference point on which autonomous employees can rely and adjust their approach: “The objective brings clarity to the way work is carried out, and in the creative professions, it allows them to free themselves from control of the means used. In particular, I’m thinking about office attendance.” In the context of the future of work, which will have to deal with the full remote, she recommends in particular not to reproduce the biases that are already detrimental in face-to-face, in order to avoid a lack of results coupled with an increase in means that put pressure on the employees. “We need to learn with regards to asynchronous time. Time dedicated to work with concentration periods, without this permanent communication load, which can annihilate the true objectives given and increase the feeling of not doing enough”, she suggests.

Collaborating and communicating on the means used are one way of dealing with objectives in tomorrow’s management, but the important aspect is not to lose sight of the actual performance of the work, which objectives only point to. The best objectives are guiding: just like the KPIs, companies’ very own “polar stars”. They point to a horizon, but the navigation remains the responsibility of the whole team.

Article edited by Mélissa Darré, photo : Thomas Decamps for WTT

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