Take a shovel to your backyard. Pick a spot out of the way. Start digging a hole. Spend a few hours in the sun, shoveling hard. You have accomplished something right?

You accomplished something valuable if you had a goal to have a hole in the ground. You wasted your time if you did not want a hole in the ground. This is a reasonable and obvious conclusion.

Sometimes setting our goals is easy, and straightforward. You would like a pond in your backyard. You would like to build it yourself. You investigate pond building, and decide that a hole is the next step in the pond building process. Hole digging time.

Messing Everything Up Through Goals

There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all — Peter Drucker (1963)

I worked in the Amazon Marketplace group for a few years. This is a platform which allows 3rd party sellers to sell their products through Amazon's retail website. Through this platform, sellers can set prices, inventory levels, discounts, and more.

The Situation

There was an action our 3rd parties wanted to perform regularly. For ease of explanation, lets say that it was setting prices. Each seller has their own queue for price updates, and each seller was throttled to a specific speed based on their business size. So lets say a large seller was allowed 1000 price changes a minute, and a smaller seller was allowed 100 price changes a minute.

There was a long list of sellers who were at their maximum rate of price changes. They were submitting price changes faster than the system could process them, and they would fill up their queue of pending price changes until the system started rejecting future price changes. For example, a large seller could process 1000 price changes a minute, but they were submitting 1500 price changes a minute, and the remainder of price changes were being tossed away by Amazon's system.

The team in charge of price changes was concerned. They said they could see that sellers had a need to change prices quickly, and our price change system was limiting them.

The Solution

The price change team set a goal to improve the speed of processing price changes for each seller.

They measured the pace that sellers were submitting price changes, the much faster pace than was allowed. They set a goal to double the processing of price changes across all of Amazon's systems to allow sellers to be unconstrained.

At first glance, this made sense. The team properly set a SMART goal, outlining exactly how much processing speed would be added for all sellers. They had observed a problem customers were encountering, and their solution should solve that problem.

After many months of hard work across many systems, the team declared success. They had massively improved the architecture of the price change system. They had improved the processing speed of price changes by 3x.

They had exceeded their goal by a significant margin. Parties and champagne all around. The team sent out an excited note to their partner teams in Amazon that they were now tripling the allowed limits for all sellers to remove the price change bottlenecks forever.

Except the bottlenecks didn't change at all. Almost every single bottlenecked seller continued to be bottlenecked once their limits were increased to 3x their previous limits.