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Getting Past The Tyranny of Results

12 March 2018

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about 3 problems that explain why results focused management fails. Today I thought I'd share some broad thoughts on how we might find a better way. I see these as offering necessary but insufficient steps; fodder for a blog when being comprehensive might take a book... or several.

First, a reminder of the problems: 

Problem 1: Performance can’t be measured, only understood.

  • Measures are an imperfect language, providing a partial description of some aspects of performance. When we reduce how we understand performance to how we measure it we end up narrowing our perspective and missing the point.

Problem 2: Setting performance goals inclines us to behave as if problem 1 doesn’t exist.

  • Using numerical goals to drive improvement only encourages us to adopt this narrow view.

Problem 3: The tyranny of results

  • Leveraging accountability for numerical goals (i.e. results) hampers honest and collegiate discussion, encouraging us to treat performance as a game to be played, not a process of learning, improving and collaborating.

In summary...

Fig. 1 - Performance Is Always In The Round

Towards A Better Way

Getting Past Problem 1: Remember that numbers are only one language for describing performance and not always the best one.

Having measures is really important. Without them it’s impossible to see whether the actions we take to improve translate to impacts at scale. While I’ve previously argued that numbers can’t tell us whether our impact is good or bad in performance terms - they can't keep score - they remain an essential feedback loop to tell us whether we have had any impact at all; so we need measures but we also need to supplement measures with other ways of knowing and describing performance.

Take a hospital admission rate as an example. As a measure it doesn’t tell us anything about whether the admissions made were necessary and appropriate or not. The rate is just a number. We can benchmark it against other hospitals and create league tables and do all sorts of maths on it but unless we know what proportion of admissions were appropriate in each instance then all we are comparing is a difference in rate without any anchor into a difference in performance.

To get beyond the numbers we need to work on questions like, “What constitutes a good admission?”. Doing this actively, in the work, helping people to frame clear operational definitions of what good looks like - expressed in natural language - can give us a much richer way of describing and discussing performance than numbers can provide. It can also help sensitise us to what really affects the underlying health of our ways of working.

Having operational definitions - descriptions of what good looks like in practical terms - can therefore help us to better understand what our numbers are telling us, giving them context in much the same way that those numbers give context to whether our actions have had an impact or not.

NB You can read more about what I mean by operational definitions and how they work in the example here.

Getting Past Problem 2: Forget performance goals and focus on building shared meaning and commitment to action.

As we develop shared descriptions of what good looks like, it helps to treat any work to improve performance as a process of discovery first, delivery second. Being drawn into urgency for results leads to fighting fires and not their causes, squeezing the performance balloon out of shape without really improving performance in the round (see Fig. 1).

Taking the time to build a shared understanding of what good looks like in operational terms, to whom and why, then agreeing shared action and focus leads to greater commitment, greater impact and, counterintuitively, greater pace. It unblocks points of friction that can feel too difficult to surface when the focus is on results at all costs and so it can create a glide path to better, more sustainable and more collegiate delivery.

If we want to go further, making a habit of these things, hardwiring routines for uncovering shared meaning into our approach to management and governance can mean we go even further, even faster too.

NB Have a look here for an example of what I mean.

Getting Past Problem 3: De-emphasise accountability, emphasise responsibility.

Be ready to reorientate how we think about what motivates each other. The conventions of modern management have been built on an assumption that without extrinsic motivators the most we can expect from most people is practically nothing. The irony though, is that the higher we turn the heat on extrinsic forms of motivation (vis-a-vis the cattle prod of accountability) the more we find that it is responsibility and not problems with performance that we evaporate off.

If we want people to be ready to bring their full self to work, to engage without fear and to become the agents of relentless innovation that they are capable of being (and that our organisations need) then we need to recognise that holding accountability over others routinely disables our ability to exercise responsibility with them; it locks us into the unhelpfully narrow view of performance that numerical goals and objectives provide and it inhibits us from discovering shared meaning and taking shared action.

NB The recent examples from Wellbeing Teams that I've discussed here and here provide evidence of this.

So resist saying, “Why haven’t you?” and get used to saying, “How might we?”.

On Monday Morning…

If you want to act on these issues, there’s no requirement to change all of the world all at once. An easy place to start is to simply ask yourself and perhaps those you most commonly work with, a few question like these:

  • Are we really clear about what good looks like in operational terms?
    • Are those we work with?
  • Can we confidently and concisely describe this to each other?
    • In terms that we all agree?

And if the answer to those is ‘yes’:

  • Is this shared and explicit understanding of what good looks like the frame we use to diagnose the health of our ways of working and to agree action or do we more often start with our numbers and work backwards from there?

Having numbers is great - important too - but whatever and however we measure, to treat them as the starting point for action is to put the cart before the horse and to perpetuate 'the tyranny of results'.


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