Why Life Is Nothing Like Chess


Wednesday, 9.45pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Many leaders are tempted to lead like a chess master, striving to control every move, when they should be leading like gardeners, creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem in which the organization operates. – Stanley A. McChrystal

I came across something called Goodhart’s law recently, which says “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

What this basically says is that when you try to engineer a result by creating a target people respond in a predictable way – they try and game your system.

You can see this most clearly in any sales activity.

If you set a target for the number of sales achieved, for example, then salespeople will do whatever they can to make that number – especially if it affects how much money they personally make.

And what you get usually is some kind of miss-selling.

For example, in one kind of industry it’s common for people to call up pretending to be a supplier or claiming that something is wrong and they need information from you to fix it.

They might pressure you into signing something that you don’t fully understand.

Now, if you own the company and have hired those salespeople and put in that kind of measure – then what do you think will happen?

In the short term they’ll hit their targets, you’ll pay their bonuses and they’ll be off.

But when the complaints and claims come in then you’re left to deal with them and pay the costs.

Unless you’re in on the scam as well and have left for another job leaving shareholders to pick up the bill.

Gaming is a completely rational response to managers who think that targets and pressure is the way to get things done.

Which is, oddly, the vast majority of managers.

If you look at governments – they do this kind of thing.

So do company bosses, virtually every network marketing business you can think of and even diet and exercise coaches.

Targets are good, they say, and let’s focus on targets to hit goals.

But, from what I have seen, there are two problems.

The first is that the people setting targets often have their own goals – target setting can be a way to deflect criticism of their leadership and performance.

Political leaders, for example, love to put targets on service delivery – like waiting times in hospitals – because it looks like they’re doing something.

They don’t care that their approach to target setting results in hospitals gaming the numbers to make sure they get their funding – while the actual service that patients get falls apart because everyone is too busy trying to meet numbers instead of doing their jobs.

Or actually – they do care – about getting re-elected.

The second problem is that focusing on one part of the problem almost never results in improving the overall situation.

Systemic improvement does not result from working on parts – it comes from making those parts work better together.

Gardening is a good analogy for this – as you tend weeds and put in plants that work well together – removing waste and improving performance.

Nothing in nature has targets – and it seems to work just fine.

Bees don’t need targets for the amount of honey they collect, for example.

They just work together and get what they need.

The basic mistake managers make is that they think life is like chess – if they put the right systems in place and the right measures – then they’ll get performance.

But actually people don’t do good work when they are afraid, when they are told that if they don’t meet a target they will not get their money.

Money is not a good motivator for anything.

People do good work because they want to.

And if you try and treat them like automatons, like chess pieces in your very clever game, you’ll end up with one very real problem.

You can move your pieces all you want.

A person can simply kick them over.


Karthik Suresh

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