Despite that, I have been disappointing senior managers for years by failing to produce gold out of dross.
Alchemy is still believed in, at the highest levels of organisations. There are senior managers who believe that the right combination of base ingredients, mixed in the right way, with the correct process, will produce gold. Yes, the purest gold.
Senior management don’t think that actual heavy yellow gold will come from the right arrangement of crap in the right mystical process. That would be silly. Instead they very often believe that the right arrange of crappy data will produce golden knowledge with the right mystical graph. Or chart, or map, or special set of coloured symbols.
If you are lucky enough to work in performance management, then you will have regularly been asked to produce performance reports for senior management. This will disappoint them on a regular basis. It will disappoint because not matter what you do you will not, and cannot, produce the right arrangement of data on a page to unlock the secrets within. Because there are no secrets within.
In command and control organisations there is a massive disconnect between the work and decision making. Senior managers who make decisions about work are very far away from where it takes place. They will ask other people who also are very far away from the work to tell them what is happening in the work by providing them with “performance information”. These people, like me, are in a bind. They are being asked to produce something that doesn’t exist. i.e. the truth in a database. Truths are rarely in databases, but performance information is, so they are often confused.
Once taken out the database, they are tarted up with graphs, maps, performance symbols, traffic light colours. They are put into scorecards, added to risk matrices, exception reports and strategic away-day summaries. But what-ever happens to them, nothing changes. The golden knowledge is not unlocked and remains hidden. It’s not there.
Senior management get shirty. “Where’s our performance information?” they cry. “Add another column“, “make the information more strategic”, “link it to our corporate priorities”, “more maps!”.
But it doesn’t work because the secret isn’t hidden inside the performance information, and it cannot be teased out with the just the right arrangement on a page, like finding the mystical combination to the universe. You can’t find anything new in a room, no matter how prettily the data is arranged on a page. To find anything new, you’ve got to think new. Asking for the same old performance information is thinking old.
I like data, data is great. But any old data is stupid. I have had people ask me for “data”, like there is a big sack of out the back that I could rummage in and give them half a pound of in a bag. It’s not data that’s needed, it’s leadership. Without that any old data is good enough and none of it is, at the same time. Without proper leadership there can be no common shared understanding of purpose, and without purpose you can measure anything and everything.
With the right purpose, as defined by the customer, you can get the right measures. The right measures will shine like gold even scrawled on the back of a fag packet. The best and most useful measures I have ever seen were hurriedly brought together by staff whose work it measured. It was data not collected before, because it wasn’t centrally defined by government. It was shoved into badly coloured pie charts, crammed into badly labelled bar charts, piled into tables, all without labels telling you what it was or when it was collected. All the usual panoply of a usual useless performance report was missing. And yet, because it was truthful useful information measuring purpose, and with the intention of understanding and finding out, it was better than gold it was the truth.