Toss the target, Toast the potential  

Nishith Desai

We are making a new intrepid move on the wings of our big shift to Networked Leadership1.

We have done away with annual revenue targets for individuals and practice teams. Instead, we will discuss and focus on the 'Potential'. ‎We believe that's more motivating and inspirational. Targets must come from within an individual and ‎not externally imposed.

'Target' is vintage of two generations-old organization models described as ‘Orange’ or ‘Red’. 'Potential' is more evolved, and thus apt for the current ‘Teal’ or ‘Green’ organization concepts that believe in self responsibility, which is going to be the fulcrum of virtual enterprises.

When we researched further into our intuition, we surprisingly found, GSK, HSBC, WellsFargo, Barclays, Aviva and some others have scrapped targets for individuals. All of them suffered serious reputational issues and even existential risks due to 'targets'. [See the box inset below]

Apart from a broad objective setting at the enterprise-level, our lens is now shifting to potential – to the competencies, methods and efforts that shall realize our aspirations.

Essentially, we are turning to self-driven exploration, planning, management and development of our highest potential as a firm, as practices, functions and individuals. We will work towards this with minds that are free, motivated, purposeful and rigorous.

Our stance is simple: we will work as a single team, without divide or silos, with intense passion, with intelligent individual and collective behavior. We will swim, win and face all odds together.

This major resetting aims to tackle elemental questions. How can we unleash the maximum potential that lies within us – and in this firm? Despite our significant accomplishments, are the full reserves of creativity and drive in our talent realized? Are our people fulfilled and happy?

Think about it. Before it happened, would you have imagined that a blind man, or one with an amputated leg or a mere 13-year old could climb Mount Everest? Surely not. Yet, some feisty and determined individuals imagined the unimaginable, and pulled off these feats. No one forced any target on them. On the contrary, many may have discouraged them by pointing to the dangers and the risks. Yet, their self-determination spurred them to scale the peak which others thought most 'unrealistic'. They were not motivated by money - they were motivated by purpose!

If we pursue purpose, sooner or later financial reward follows. There may be no instant gratification but definitely, long term contentment and fulfilment. The supreme joy and inner happiness become precious rewards. Even when you fail.

That really is the power and magic of human potential. Our capacity to achieve is limitless – we can make the impossible possible.

And every breakthrough achievement has its roots in a powerful dream or vision with a will to match. The most motivated attainments were clearly not born out of goal-posts emerging from past experience, data or trend predicted outcomes.

Why remove a target anyway? Are we not risking loss of an important discipline that builds the much-needed pressure for rain-making and ensuring in-flow of work?

Let’s look at it this way. If you have before you a certain number that is specified as your target to achieve, all your faculties, energy and endeavors will be tailored to achieve it at any cost. You are likely to use the most expedient means, rather than consider long term benefits. You are unlikely to think blue sky on what can truly be achieved. You will think of this immediate goal – and get down to producing the short term results. You won’t ask the question “What more, and how big can we really be?” You’ll hardly be inclined to innovate, take some risks, or follow instincts and options that are off the beaten path. Also, you might not put your client interest before your own interests of performance outcomes, and consequent reward.

Another compelling reason to get rid of targets is the dissonance of relative targets. Whether you have a top-down or bottom-up strategic planning process, at some level, negotiating and balancing the numbers becomes a vicious loop in itself. Often, this some win-some lose target allocations lead to angst and disengagement that lasts the entire year.

I feel convinced that externally imposed objective targets puts everyone on the backfoot. Experience shows that it can create unnecessary stress and distort the behavior of the team, thereby making many manipulative to outright dishonest. Further, it makes us self-centered, narrow minded and uncooperative.

Hardline targets, more often than not, drives a person to commit to less than his or her potential. He or she seeks to lower the target and minimize commitment in order to show higher achievement.

Hence, targets must come from within individuals - from the bottom of their hearts, their guts, and their desire to do something extraordinary. You stretch to reach for the highest accomplishment when it is your belief and your motivation that fuels its course. On the contrary, if you are foisted with a pre-determined objective, devised by others or extraneous factors, you stay limited to just that objective.

Another failing of the target-driven system is, people develop a perform-for-incentive-only mindset, and do not stretch themselves for non-monetary but equally powerful forms of reward such as visible expertise or personal growth. They often fail to evolve multi-dimensional competencies in the single-minded pursuit of numbers. Other critical competencies for organization success have gone unrecognized for long, and thus diminished the true engines of growth, value creation and vitality.

So, now that we are shedding targets, how will we actualize the power of potential?

We believe that once an individual and the organization understand their potential and opportunity, they will be self- driven. Without being unduly worried about penalties for not achieving, their own enterprise will push their boundaries and achieve the extraordinary. We shall now say, “Do what it takes to build the best brand, best client experience, best expertise and best growth architecture in your practice.”

In effect, we are aligning the crucial element of organization and individual performance with our larger strategic direction - towards responsible self-management that allows the individual compass of inner rightness to guide action. We are keeping the faith in our people’s abiding professional ethic.

So, the deck is cleared for a fresh start. We trust every professional in charge of a practice, a role, a client or a project to deep dive, develop, excel and stretch the potential of it. And, in the manner best fit for creating sustainable value, advantage and gains.

And the bean count need not worry us.





It is noteworthy that several global corporations have in recent years discarded ‘target setting’ and ‘sales incentives’. High sales targets, set on elusive growth trajectories, year after year, has become a malaise in corporations, having pushed many aggressive sales systems into unethical, short-cut methods to deliver numbers at any cost and claim incentives.

  • Following the accusations of bribery to doctors and health officials in China in order to boost prescriptions, followed by other ethical compromises in the US, Glaxo SmithKline2 did away with individual sales targets and overhauled its compensation system. Instead, the company decided to reward sales professionals working directly with prescribers on the basis of their "technical knowledge, the quality of the service they deliver to support improved patient care, and the overall performance of GSK's business.” The programme also rewarded sales staff for "adherence to the company values of transparency, integrity, respect and patient focus," according to a GSK press release issued at the time.‎

It is understood that J&J have followed the suit.

  • HSBC3 has removed all sales targets in branches, with staff performance instead to be measured by "customer satisfaction and sales quality".

  • Wells Fargo & Co4, the largest U.S. bank by market capitalization, decided to eliminate all product sales goals in retail banking, soon after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and two other regulators fined the bank $185 million over abusive sales practices.

Barclays5 too did the same.

  • In order to remove ‘fear’ psyche as a sales driver, Aviva6 dropped call handling and sales targets, bonuses, spot prizes and sales league tables in the UK, moved to ‘systems thinking’ that focused on client value. What happens when you do away with sales targets? Well if you follow the Aviva ' Systems Thinking' model then several good things happen:

  1. staff retention increases

  2. staff satisfaction scores soar

  3. customer satisfaction increased upto 90%



As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Weekender is intended to be sent only on those weekends where we have something interesting to share.


1 Refer The Weekender Issue # 6, Networked Leadership, December 25, 2016

2 Refer article, “No more sales targets for GSK sales reps”

3 Refer article, “HSBC removes sales targets – staff incentives”

4 Refer article, “Wells Fargo is getting rid of sales goals for retail bankers.”

5 Refer article, “Barclays scraps sales based bonuses for staff.”

6 Refer article on Aviva, “What happens when you do away with sales targets.”