Long-term target setting and the value of realism

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Modern society is managed and influenced by targets. Setting targets, it seems, is an innate human characteristic, a product of our curiosity and sense of adventure perhaps and certainly a tool for driving progress. It’s one of the behaviors that set our achievements apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Although, there are some wonderful examples of natural architecture that we humans can be inspired by and learn from, both practically and conceptually.

But often, we get it wrong. Whether in politics, business, science or sport, examples of missed targets and deadlines are ten-a-penny. Why is that? If mankind can get to the Moon, why can’t we do more of the simple things more of time, and do it without needing Apollo Programme levels of funding? Should we just not bother ourselves with targets, wouldn’t we all be happier? The rest of the natural world seems to get by ok without budgets, Gantt charts, project plans and managers. Admittedly no other species to the best of my knowledge has ever made it to the Moon.

There are, I think, two main reasons that lead to missed targets, and neither should come as surprise. Achieving something worthwhile and meaningful requires collaboration, so it stands to reason that a lack of collaboration, or a lack of the right kind of sustained and facilitated collaboration, results in targets being missed or the quality of the output falling below expectations. The second reason concerns with how we define and manage constraints. The reality is that constraints are often the root cause of compromise or failure. They are usually fixed from the outset, think time, resource and cost of delivery; or, in the case of a specification, not fully formed at the outset. The result can be an outcome that is either delayed, over-budget, lacking the required quality or all those things. But time and cost will always be constrained, so does that mean collaboration and the value and quality of outputs should be compromised? Or that we are forever destined to make the same mistakes repeatedly?

Honesty and realism are important behaviors in this conversation. A great deal of effort, expectation and collaboration is undone by a lack of honesty and realism when it comes to setting targets, by the supplier and customer. As Construction Excellence’s Modern Collaborative Working Champions point out in this blog on the value of realism, no one wants to pay more for something than they need to, but how much is the right amount? Once you set a realistic cost target for delivery of the required outcome, you know with greater certainty whether you can achieve that outcome for the given constraints or whether your expectations need to be re-calibrated to a more achievable, realistic level. Too often this doesn’t happen and in part it means we end up spending too much effort on the contract, spreading and mitigating the risk of failure rather than collaborate to maximize the value and quality we, as investors, clients, customers, building owners and occupants desire in the first place.

Against this backdrop, sustainability and wider ESG objectives can suffer, either because they are not properly considered, or they are considered but suffer from value engineering exercises or unrealistic target setting. It is counter-productive when inappropriate sustainability-based solutions for a building or project end-up being sought to maintain delivery of a target, rather than choosing the optimal solution for the given budget, site or building constraints (and/or a longer-term sustainability benefit).

In the process sustainability schemes bear their share of criticism. Whilst I would not claim sustainability rating schemes are perfect, I can think of examples when BREEAM has been criticized for driving the wrong outcome, when the reality is sustainability aspirations, or to put it another way the target rating, is out of kilter with the project constraints. Often, this is realized by many of the stakeholders involved. This is a problem more acute in the procurement of new building’s where the target rating is set at a high level through a planning requirement and not driven by the client; and in-turn the higher-level rating is treated as a pass or fail objective, often with some form of penalty for failure. Constructing Excellence probably sums it up best when they conclude in their article on collaborative working that, if realism is adopted there should be enough funds to deliver optimal if not enhanced value.

So, where does that leave us? Well, the first thing to say is that there many examples of buildings and clients that strike a balance between long term quality and value expectations and the constraints of time, cost and scope. These examples fall across a range of building types and budgets and BREEAM have showcased some of them here. The second point comes back to realism. Sustainability rating schemes are by-in-large calibrated to recognize increasingly higher levels of performance, with the highest levels going significantly beyond regulation and standard practice with progressively more stringent benchmarks of minimum performance for any given rating level. It’s an obvious thing to say, but simply setting a target rating for performance doesn’t guarantee a sustainable outcome. It’s as much about the journey as the destination, it’s about identifying and maximizing the opportunities to create better, more sustainable assets and doing so in an ongoing, continuous way.

Standards like BREEAM play their part on this journey and used effectively they are powerful tools, but they are more like maps than the means of propulsion, there to help the traveler navigate choppy waters or unchartered terrain. They are a framework for collaboration, a set of technical standards, benchmarks and methodologies that point-the-way. The rating and associated indicators act as a useful staging post or milestone for customers and stakeholders. And the verification, often in the form of third-party assessment and certification, confirms to the world the destination that’s been reached. But the journey shouldn’t end there. Motivated and inspired by a deep-rooted sense of adventure and lashings of realism the traveler should continue, a bit further, a bit faster.

This article was written by Tim Bevan, Director of BREEAM Operations, BRE Group

Related insights