Targets again

The archery and shooting teams were not the only Olympians to be obsessed with hitting targets.  We now learn that Charles Van Commenee, the head coach of the GB athletics team, has resigned his post because he did not hit the medal targets he was set by his bosses.  Now, the guy may have been good or bad, or even tired and eager to go, but to sack him for failing to attain targets seems a dumb thing to do.

I can see that targets are useful statements of expected standards of performance when the attainment of them is within the control of those asked to deliver.  Production targets for a factory are a good example, and so are infection rates in a hospital ward.  But isn’t it a bit silly for Olympic teams to set ‘targets’ for the number of medals they wish to win ?  An individual contestant might aim to achieve a faster run, higher jump or longer throw this season, for that is within their power.  But the ability to win medals is different: it depends not just on the performance of our competitors, but also on the skill and fitness – and funding, and coaching – of their rivals in the other teams, something which is entirely beyond the control of our coaches.  How do we view it when someone hits a personal best time, but fails to secure the desired medal ?  Or gets a medal because their sub-par score is better than rivals’ similarly weak performances (I am pleased a Brit won the long jump gold medal, but his 8.31m leap and just about matches the 1962 world record and is a full two feet short of the current one) ?

Targets, goals, performance indicators: I suspect what we have here is the spread of dumb MBA thinking that, having polluted our manufacturing, government and banking sectors, is now moving on to ruin the management of our sports teams.  One factor that was noticeable was the growth of ‘plastic Brits’ – athletes from abroad, some of whom had actually represented other countries,  who were signed to the British team at short notice to bolster our medal chances.  Why do the hard work of developing UK citizens when you can fly in an American to jump your hurdles for you ?  In passing, the performance of these imports was almost universally poor.  I also notice that funding was attached only to teams and athletes who had good chances of reaching a medal – not those who could develop the knowledge and appreciation of their sport, or represent the country well.

I have written elsewhere about the way that setting targets can pollute information.  At least medals are a simple and understandable – and un-fiddleable – statistic.  This isn’t true elsewhere.  There is a rich literature on how schools and colleges can fiddle their figures.  Police forces are notorious for reclassifying crimes so their crime rates and clear-up statistics look good.  In the Soviet Union, planning targets led to routine game-playing that has been widely reported.  I warmed to a recent letter to the Times which said that he would not shun hospitals with high reported death or infection rates, as they would be the ones which did not distort their figures in order to please their masters.  This is all well known – named Goodhart’s Law after the academic who brought it to public attention.  As soon as you make someone’s promotion, or salary, or dismissal, dependent on management information, that information becomes useless.

Come back, Charles, there’s nothing to forgive.

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