Saturday, 2 May 2020

Redefining the target

Having spent many years working on IT projects, I’m well aware of the ways in which project managers can claim to have met the objectives by the target date. They include subtle changes to the objective, reducing the scope of the project, or implementing ‘phase 1’ of a project which no-one previously understood was to be delivered in phases. And they get away with things like this because it’s generally also in the interests of the clients who’ve spent £millions to appear to have been successful rather than to admit to failure.
After leaving university, the English Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, briefly worked for his family’s software company, and that may well be where he learned some of these tricks. A target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day has morphed into a target of carrying out 100,000 tests on one particular day, and ‘carrying out’ has been redefined as ‘carrying out or putting in the post’. Hey presto, target achieved! Having counted 40,000 tests which are ‘in the post’ as being completed may leave him with a slight problem or two: he can’t (although he might well try!) count the same tests a second time when (or even if – the return rate is unlikely to be 100%) they are returned, and it is doubtful if they can continue to despatch 40,000 by post every day.
Still, credit where credit is due – the number of tests being conducted has undoubtedly increased significantly, and the figure of 100,000 per day is and always was a wholly arbitrary target, which may or may not be adequate for the task in hand, set as a rough proxy for the underlying objective for the want of anything better. Focussing on the number to such an extent means that they’ve been more concerned with saving the Minister’s skin than with using the tests in the most useful way; as ever, managing by targets invariably encourages focus on the target rather than the objective. The more important question now is not an argument about whether the means by which the number was achieved were fair or foul, let alone about the next numerical target (the PM has previously talked about 250,000 per day), but about how the increased testing capacity can best be used to achieve the objective. I suspect the government will now find itself where innumerable IT project managers have found themselves over the years: concentrating on delivering ‘phase 1’ in a huge last minute panic means that they haven’t had the time to even think about what phase 2 might look like or how it might be delivered. And that leads me to also suspect that they will therefore end up setting another meaningless and arbitrary target anyway, not least as a way of diverting attention from the fact that they really haven’t got much of a clue otherwise.

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