Thursday, 29 January 2009

Seven principles of performance management

Whatever you are trying to achieve – whether individually, as a team, or a business, there are seven basic principles which will get you there faster.

1. Success you can measure
2. Agreed plan
3. Binary milestones
4. Metrics for everything
5. Visible and visual progress
6. Regular reviews
7. Recognise achievements

Success you can measure
I’m not sure you can beat SMART goals. Specific, measureable, agreed, realistic and timed. This avoids SNAFU: Situation Normal – All Fouled Up. Seriously though, SMART goals are not new, just rarely found in the workplace. The reason you don’t see too many SMART goals around is that they are hard work. Woolly goals are much easier, and because you haven’t agreed them, they are also easy to forget when it all goes wrong. The initial up-front effort with a SMART goal sets the whole achievement thing off to a flying start.

I also like SMARTER goals – specific, measureable, agreed, realised, timed, ethical and recorded. Ethical should be a given, and recorded is a good reminder. Make the goal visible – and if it’s important, record it somewhere people will see it.

Agreed plan
A measureable and clearly defined outcome starts the planning process. Figure out the activities changes that need to be made en route to the goal. There are a bundle of complaints against planning: it takes time, stuff happens that you hadn’t thought of, work expands to fill the time allowed, etc. None of these are good enough reasons not to have a plan. The level of detail will be different according to circumstances, but you must have enough planning done to be able to see your way to achieving your goal.

Binary milestones
Milestones have either been met or they haven’t. ‘Nuff said. And if they haven’t been met, then they need to be. Either in parallel with other tasks or before you move on. Binary milestones rock!

Metrics for everything
In the short time I have been blogging on performance management and business intelligence the whole issue of metrics has caused a thunderstorm in an eggcup. “You can’t manage through measurement” has been the cry “management is about people.” Well, no and yes. You can and must manage through measurement, and yes, absolutely it’s all about people. And people need to know what standard is expected of them. How many, how much, what time, how long, how deep …

Lord Kelvin is famous, amongst other things, for saying that “if you can not measure it, you cannot improve it.” In business, as in science, that is true.

He also said “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” but, hey, you can’t be too hard on a guy that contributed so much to what so many of us understand so little of; except physics students, of course.

Visible & visual progress
Making progress visual and visible is a cornerstone of performance management. And the more creative and fun you can make it, the better. Measuring progress, in the true sense of measurement, and showing it graphically, has an almost magical effect.

Remember the Blue Peter appeals for stamps, scrap metal, woollies, and other stuff that kids could send in? Remember also the bright and massively visual ways they had of showing how they were doing? Colours, bells, lights, giant post boxes, it was all there in the studio. It worked then and it works now.

Regular reviews
You’ve created your goals, got your plan with binary milestones, are measuring everything in sight, and showing it visually. A couple more ingredients are needed to stop those charts flat-lining: reviews and determination.

Things don’t always go the way we want. So we have to adjust and re-think. Review regularly with analysis of the metrics and informed ideas to adjust the plan. Trying to adjust without analysis is called guessing. Determination is required to work through the analysis, figure out new solutions, and test ideas until those beautiful visual charts start perking up.

Recognise achievements
Working through problems, finding solutions, and making plans takes considerable effort, often for prolonged lengths of time. The metrics tell you how well you are doing, and they also tell you when its time to take the team out to dinner. Recognising achievements, celebrating successes is motivating and necessary to keep everyone on board.

Seven steps that will help you make a success at just about anything. None of them are original, all of them are tried and tested, and all of them work. Now the bad news – they all take effort: a lot of effort. That’s why success isn’t a given, and why riches don’t just tumble from the skies. The seven steps won’t guarantee riches either, but they will improve the odds.

Friday, 23 January 2009

The Vision Thing

Why a defined strategy is crucial to performance management

I’m about to give a speech at my local Toastmasters club and I have chosen a rather controversial topic. I will argue, fairly or unfairly, that Barack Obama didn’t have enough of The Vision Thing in his inauguration speech. I have no doubt this will be deeply unpopular.

Obama is remarkable in many ways – not least in his ability to deliver a mighty fine speech. And right now what America needs most is a visionary president.

Part of my reason for choosing this subject wasn’t because I thought Obama needed a bit of help, but that it reminded me just how important vision and strategy is to performance management.

Without a strategy you cannot compare performance, good or bad, to anything. In fact, without a strategy you don’t really know what you should be doing when you get out of bed in the morning.

The ubiquitous scorecard has become a powerful way of monitoring performance in companies and public sector organisations alike. And many have implemented the Balanced Scorecard, created by Kaplan and Norton during the 1990’s.

The Balanced Scorecard is remarkable for two reasons.

1. It monitors four areas of a business: financials, customer focus, internal focus and learning & growth.
2. It encourages measures to be derived from strategy.

I often wonder whether what gets remembered most from their work is the four quadrants, and not the link to strategy. Yet it is the latter which is the more powerful, and at the time was the most ground breaking.

When a company first starts to implement the Balanced Scorecard they often find that their strategy isn’t defined as well as they thought. It prompts debate, arguments, refinements, and more debate. In fact some companies purposefully bypass the strategy step because they know it will be difficult. But once strategy is agreed there is a forward motion that almost takes on a life of its own. Good measures become easier to identify, and performance management becomes a whole lot easier.

I still don’t think we had enough of the Vision Thing in the inauguration speech and shall argue my case despite any frosty looks. But my personal silver lining was that it prompted me to look at my own company’s vision statement and make some necessary revisions.

That Vision Thing matters.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Count what you can manage

Numbers improve creativity

As an avid reader, and a loyal follower of Mariella Frostup’s Book Show, I am fascinated with how authors produce their work.

What strikes me about authors’ working habits is how often numbers occur in answer to interviewer’s questions about how they produce their books. Writing is a creative process – yet authors appear to be methodical and systematic.

In his book ‘On Writing’, Stephen King says that he writes 10 pages a day without fail, even on holidays. I wonder whether my idea of a holiday is the same as Mr King's, but his disclosure is nonetheless impressive.

Here are some comments made by the Book Show guests about how they work:

I can really focus and just get on with writing my 1,000 words. Then I get to spend the rest of the day playing with the babies…” Jenny Colgan (best selling chick-lit author, mother, and blogger extraordinaire)

I always start the day by going into my office at about nine o’clock. This is where I work on my four books a year. When I’m writing a book, I write about 3,000 to 4,000 words a day; I don’t really have to think about what’s going to happen in the books: it just seems to come from my subconscious mind. I write for two to three hours and then I come out of the ‘trance’, as it were.” Alexander McCall Smith author of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

My working day starts at about 2.30pm and continues on through to half past six or seven o’clock, when I stop because I’m knackered.” William Boyd – prize winning author and film writer

I’ve got these files here and then I’ve got my marvellous patterned notebooks. I’m absolutely devoted to them. I must have about 200 by now, ‘cause I do about 20 for each subject.” Lady Antonia Fraser – historical biographer

J G Ballard, who wrote the cult novel ‘Crash’ was reported in The Times as saying:

I try to write about 1,000 words a day in longhand and then edit it very carefully later before I type if out. I have been known to stop in the middle of a sentence sometimes when I've reached my limit. But self-discipline is enormously important; you can't rely on inspiration or a novel would take ten years.”

Performance management in action

This is Performance Management in action. The numbers – whether the hours they work, the number of words or pages they write, or the research notebooks filled – are part of the creative process.

Of course the numbers themselves don’t make the stories more gripping or their characters more life-like. They don’t compensate for poor grammar, or improve their spelling. But they do allow the authors to improve all of these things by the regular, systematic, and consistent application of their creative energies.

The numbers enable these authors to manage their creativity. They are conscious of when is the best time of day to write. They understand their own personal balance between targeting a number of words, and keeping up the quality of what they write. They set their own targets with words, pages and books –authors’ equivalent of a KPI.

Best selling lessons for business

All the authors I’ve quoted are best-selling authors. By literary and commercial standards they are successful. Their scorecards are filled with the number of words they write each day, the number of hours they work, how they edit, their research notebooks, and how they get started when faced with a blank sheet of paper. The book sales then follow.

In contrast, business people often start with the sales figures. “This year we are targeting sales of the XYZ product to be 1,000 units a month …” Business scorecards are filled with sales revenue and profit targets. Whilst these figures absolutely have their place, they are not the figures that business managers are actually able to manage. What we can manage is the efficiency with which we produce our products or services. We can decrease defects, or increase features. We can improve distribution or marketing communications, etc.

Metrics for creative types

The concept of applying “cold, hard numbers” to creative processes such as man management or writing isn’t intuitive. Metrics appear too stark, too simple and don’t convey the ambiguities of day to day business or the plot of a novel.

In reality they convey a great deal. The writer knows that a day that produced 1,000 words is moving them closer to their finished book – even if they eventually have to re-write every word.

Equally, successful managers think carefully about the key metrics in their business, and then ensure they are monitored and improved regularly. Because of course that’s the whole point. By creating targets and measuring the key parts of the process we are able to improve on what we do: improve the process, and the deliverables. Clever people, authors.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Chief Performance Officer

President-elect Barack Obama has announced that he will have a Chief Performance Officer on his team. Nancy Killefer from McKinsey & Co, a former assistant Treasury secretary, is charged with making the government more efficient, effective and transparent. Oh, and trimming the projected $1.2 trillion deficit.

The appointment is interesting. Killefer has specialised in strategies to improve organizational effectiveness for public sector organisations. Whilst she certainly has excellent financial credentials this is an acknowledgement that this is more than just a financial problem. It is one of efficiency, performance, and accountability.

It will be interesting to see what a management consultancy approach to this problem looks like. Will the real work needed to get accountability as well as accurate metrics be done? We all know that setting targets is one thing, but getting the behaviours right behind the targets is quite another. Measuring performance against the targets is equally challenging.

How Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are calculated, how cheat-proof, and how well accepted they are, will all make a difference to how well new initiatives work. But well designed KPIs can significantly lift performance and are well worth the effort.

There are real difficulties in getting accuracy and meaningfulness into figures and financials for the United States. It is a big job. There will be lots to learn from how she tackles it and the many successes this focus will generate.

I’m sure we will be seeing a lot more Chief Performance Officers before too long. The US government is not the only organisation going through its budgets line by line but still wanting to make sure it delivers on its promise to customers.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

All things measurable

Does the world need another blog? Not exactly; but it’s got one anyway.

Welcome to Getting to Excellent!

Getting to Excellent will be thoughts, rants and ramblings about the world of performance management, business intelligence, key performance indicators, scorecards, dashboards, metrics, and all things measurable as well as a few things that won’t be measured.

I’m a Microsoft Certified Professional, a systems analyst and obsessive about how numbers help us to do better. I’m a Toastmaster, a yogini, and stubbornly dreadful at French. I’m also fortunate enough to have worked with and for some of the world’s most capable companies.

And for what it’s worth I passionately believe that performance does matter: both good and bad performance. I believe we all have a deep seated desire to do well in our chosen fields and that understanding how to do better is important. Important for individuals, teams, businesses, and public sector organisations.

So I’m going to write about it. Here. In Getting to Excellent. The world’s new blog. That it didn’t necessarily want. But got anyway.