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Posts Tagged ‘targets

Narratives are better than goals

I was talking today with @dominiccampbell and he helped me resolve another question that has been hanging around my head.  Why are narratives so much better than goals and targets for guiding action?

Goals do raise performance

We psychologists know that goals raise performance.  Put a target on the wall and people will try to meet it. Performance can leap by huge multiples of 100, 200, 300%.

Add feedback, that is add the circles around the bull’s eye, and performance goes up further, even by 20% for top performers.

We like making targets.  Just watch a dog at a sheep trial. We love it!

Narratives are better

But, now we are in election season in the UK, the poverty of goals becomes so clear.

Parties are tossing around specific promises for everything from deficits to bus timetables.  It’s most odd.  For a start, most of these target are the job of mid-level civil servants to set and manage.  Not sure what we employ them for if politicians do this.

The targets are also spurious.  Can anyone really set these targets for a year ahead at any time and can they do so now when the world is in such disarray and a double dip recession might happen within weeks?

Most of all, goals are wrong because they are artificially simple.  I pointed @dominiccampell to a Gen Y blogger who paints a depressing picture of the life being led by fresh graduates in the UK.   This is the life they lead and they can “see” themselves leading.

Politicians need to paint the picture of what they see happening in the UK and how it is unfolding.  Stories of the one-legged man they met on the way to the forum, or arbitrary numbers just don’t cut it.   (Can’t remember what they other fella said.)

We need a visual picture of UK – a synopsis of the movie we are living out.

This, dear psychologists, is why we should use narratives.  We need a moment of ‘aesthetic arrest’ where the relevant factors are brought together within a frame, in a story which shows how the main factors come together, counteracting and influencing each other, and it must be “true”.   We need a sense of “yes, I see it now”.  Aha!

Goals and anecdotes don’t deliver ‘aesthetic arrest”.  They are one dimensional or 2 dimensional cutouts.  They cannot deliver a picture of the world in all its complexities.  And that is what we need to hear.

Chain-of-command

Imagine 6 000 students gathering in a hall and becoming a little rowdy.  The police arrive. The local Chief Constable arrives.   So does the head of the riot police.  Who is in charge?  Who decides what will happen?

Well, the riot police often think they are in charge because they are bigger and more powerful. The local Chief Constable is likely to assert him or herself, though, and say, “I am in charge in this place.  Everyone will take their instructions for me.”

Chain-of-command in business

We might think that this reasoning only begins in the uniformed services. But it is relevant in business as well.

At any moment, it is someone’s job to make a decision.  We should not get in their way. Even when we are bigger and more powerful, we may not have all the information we need to make a good decision.  Nor can we follow through.  We simply have no business making decisions that we will not see through to the very end.

Work & organizational psychologists and the chain-of-command

Work & organizational psychologists, or occupational psychologists as they are known in UK, or IO psychologists as they are known in the US, are well trained to identify who is making the decision and what information they need to make it.

We often have massive status but we should not get in the way of the people who are doing the work. We wouldn’t get in the way of a surgeon and we should not get in the way of anyone else either.

Work & organizational psychologists respect the skill of decision making in each and every job

The information that people use to make decisions is also not immediately obvious to us.  Skilled workers have mental models for organizing their work.  They have goals, they recognize information as signals, and they pick up information as feedback which tells them whether they are approaching their goals.  We don’t have their expertise and when we move things around, we can utterly muddle the way they organize information.  Taking a single piece of paper off someone’s desk can be akin to knocking out a a supporting wall of a house -whereupon, it all falls down.

When we are working in someone elses workplace, we are trying to read what they are noticing, what they are responding to, and what they are trying to achieve.  None of this may be obvious particularly if they’ve been doing the job for a long time.

Work & organizational psychologists do not set up goals or targets for other people

Setting up goals or targets for skilled people is utterly absurd. When we do so, we imply that they have no mental models or expertise to organize and to bring into being a smoothly operating system.

Setting up targets shows incompetence on our part.

Goals & targets are set up in basic professional training

The time to set goals and targets is during professional training.  At that point people are learning what information is available and how it comes together into a working system.

Everything we do thereafter needs to recognize that organization or requires a hefty reinvestment.  We will always look first to see if we can wrap a system around skill models before we take that route.

So how do we work out how people make decisions?

  • We watch what they do.
  • We watch how they respond to different situations.
  • We notice what irritates them because that tells us their efficient operations have been disrupted.
  • When it is safe to do so, we interrupt and listen to their inner talk as they try to remember where they are in a complicated process!

And above all, we are patient.

The people we are working with may have inefficient habits.  But, it is much more likely that they have deep professional considerations for what they are doing.

Our job is to broker boundaries and space for people to do their work

Our first obligation as psychologists is to broker the space in the organization for people to follow the logic of their trade or profession.

Are we doing that?  Are we adequately setting the boundaries and making the space and time for people to be effective?


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