Skip to main content

Be Careful What You Wish For: The Hazards Of Being Target-Focused

Business analysis often focuses on making a situation better. 

The challenge that I suspect many of us face is that it can be quite difficult to define what ‘better’ actually means, not least because different stakeholders often have very different perspectives.  People working on the front-line will have a different set of needs, fears and aspirations compared with the executives who are steering the ship.

We might, for example, be faced with the challenge of saving money by “improving process efficiency”.  This is the kind of broad remit that I suspect many of us enjoy taking on, it’s a woolly statement that enables us to utilize a whole range of strategic analysis tools to produce a range of different options for improvement.  We’d likely need to carry out investigations and obtain data to find out where the current inefficiencies are.  By focusing on the quantitative improvements that need to be achieved, the outcomes, we can start to understand the requirements and possible options for change.

This is certainly logical, but there is a pitfall awaiting the unprepared as there appears to be a very human tendency to ‘game’ measures and targets.  Want to look like you’re clearing a greater number of work items?  Split each item on your ‘to-do’ list in two: bam, productivity has doubled! Except of course it hasn’t.  The same ‘gaming’ happens a lot in organizations and in the processes that underpin them.

Imagine that a call center manager notices that the average call handling length has gone up from 3 minutes to 4 minutes. They feel that the calls could be cleared more quickly with a change to the processes that the call center workers follow, and perhaps with some changes to the IT system they use too. An analyst engaged at this point could rush ahead and scope out the IT change, look at streamlining the processes, and undoubtedly they could get the call time reduced…But would this really be a worthwhile problem to solve?.  Do we really care about how long the average call takes?  A simple way of exceeding the 3 minute target would be to simply cut every call off after 2:45mins, but I suspect this wouldn’t be what the sponsor really wants.  Which raises the question what are they really trying to achieve?

What Do They Really Want? Getting Beyond The TargetWhat Do They Really Want? Getting Beyond The Target

At the risk of repeating the important but somewhat clichéd line “start with why”, this is a situation where we really ought to question why the target is important.  Often people will fixate on a target, but investigation will find that different stakeholders care about the target for different reasons.  The ‘3 minute call length’ might be important for a whole number of reasons:




Interest in Target

Call center manager

“I want shorter calls so I can have the minimum number of staff, as I’m under budgetary pressure”

Working out shift patterns: Longer calls mean more staff required

Training manager

“I care less about the variety of call length, but extremes help me spot training issues”

Longer calls might mean that workers are struggling


“People should take the time they need. I get worried when I see very short calls”

Shorter calls might be a worry as this might indicate legally-required parts of the process are being skipped


“I just want my query answered fully, accurately and as quickly as possible.  I care more about waiting time in the queue than how long the call lasts”

Values accuracy of information and average speed of answer over call length

There would be many other perspectives beside, and for any change to be successful it’s likely to need to balance these different perspectives.

Understanding The Broader Situation Helps Us Broaden The Solution-Space

Understanding the true needs of our stakeholders helps us understand how they perceive the problem.  This will often open up new opportunities and solutions and help create a situation where there are more holistic discussions.  Perhaps we can improve the situation in a simpler, cheaper way than was initially envisioned whilst also better meeting their needs.   

All of this starts by focusing on stakeholders.  After all, business change is an inherently human endeavor, and business analysis is very much a ‘people profession’!

What are your views? Have you found particular approaches useful for eliciting and analyzing stakeholder viewpoints? I’d love to hear them. Be sure to connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know your thoughts!

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change. Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’ You can read Adrian’s blog at and follow him on Twitter at