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Almost every organisation – of all shapes and sizes and sectors around the world – struggles with performance measurement in very similar ways. If we can understand these common KPI struggles we can find ways to fix them, and this is what this article seeks to do.
Research by Stacey Barr (a performance measurement expert) and her direct experience with clients over the last two decades, shows that just about every organisation has the same struggles with measuring performance. These are the most common struggles that her work has identified:
Doesn’t it stand to reason that, if we share a set of common struggles with measuring performance, it’s likely there is an underlying set of common causes? As it turns out, yes there is. For any organisation that has one or more of the struggles listed above, we find one or more of the following habits in how they approach performance measurement…
The struggle of people feeling threatened by measures is caused by the bad habit of using measures to judge people’s performance. When people feel that the measures are about them, they will understandably get defensive.
All these behaviours sabotage performance, they never help it improve.
What we need to do is reframe performance measures as tools to help people improve their processes. We want measures to be a tool in their hands, to proactively improve performance of the processes they work in. It will fail if measurement is used as a rod for their backs, to make them feel judged and falling short.
So the first step in a good performance measurement approach needs to make sure people understand the real purpose of performance measurement – which is to help them improve the organisation’s processes, not judge their personal performance.
The struggle of goals seeming impossible to measure almost always comes back to the words that were chosen to write those goals. The worst words we can use are weasel words: accessibility, benefits, capacity, dynamic, efficient, fit-for-purpose, holistic, innovative, key, leveraged, outcomes, productivity, quality, reliability, sustainable, transparent, unique, wellbeing.
The problem with weasel words is they have different meanings to different people, in different contexts. They aren’t specific and observable, so they can’t be measured.
We’re not dumbing-down our strategy by writing it in plain language; language a 5th grader could understand. In fact, it takes much practice to write what we mean in the simplest words we can muster, without trivializing our goals.
If our goals can’t paint a unified picture of our intended future in the minds of all the people who should buy in to it, then those goals won’t be achieved, and won’t be measured meaningfully.
So the second step in a good performance measurement approach needs to make sure that we start with clear, specific and measurable goals before we go searching for performance measures.
One of the biggest causes of performance measures that are useless and irrelevant is the way we go about choosing them. The worst culprit is brainstorming. It’s a creativity tool, designed to open up space to consider many and varied ideas. But choosing performance measures isn’t a creative opening-up process. It’s a deliberate narrowing-down process. When we brainstorm measures we end up with:
• Too many measures that are too hard to shortlist
• Measures that don’t align strongly to our goals
• Non-measures: activities, data sources, milestones
• Nothing more powerful than what we already have
The key to good measures is not considering a wide variety of them, like brainstorming has us do. It’s designing them based on the best evidence that would convince us the goal we’re trying to measure is actually being achieved.
Real evidence has to be observable. So before we choose measures, we have to describe the evidence we’d see, or hear, or touch, or observe or detect. When we know the evidence, we can then quantify it. The most relevant and feasible quantifications of the evidence of our goals then become our measures.
And that’s exactly what the third step in a good performance measurement approach will have us do: deliberately build our measures from the evidence that convinces us our goals are achieved.
These are the first 3 of the 8 KPI Bad habits that are the common cause of KPI struggles. If you’d like to get more tips on overcoming common KPI struggles. Download our whitepaper below: ‘Measure What Matters’