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.


  1. Caroline
    Very valid points and amazing how easily these points are often over looked. Outside of your thread I know however personally would also say, as point zero maybe, "Do you have the right objective" as often we find ourselves aiming for the wrong mountain which if we had spent longer studying the map we might have discovered before we had climbed half way up, eg recent NHS patient records IT systems and many similar examples was it the management or the idea that was wrong, expensive mistakes to make whatever.

  2. Additionally your seven steps planned out in terms of the how we intend to measure and completed at the start of a project as part of a project definition and plan (PDP) or business case would have also possibly highlighted our path was wrong so again a good approach. Robert

  3. Thanks for both your comments. Good points about getting the objectives right at the start. In systems work it can be helpful to work out how a feature will be tested at the point of writing the specification. Similar to your point about how a business objective will be measured ...

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