I work in performance in the public sector. I believe in my line of work. I think helping people learn how to understand work using data is useful and important. But I don’t think that everything that happens in my line of work is a good or valuable thing. Nobody would, in any job.
Just as bad practice exists in accountancy, law, medicine, dentistry or teaching, there is also bad practice in performance monitoring and reporting.
The main way that bad practice in performance management manifests itself is that performance management becomes managing a performance. This is where data is used to tell a story or prove a point, not to find out what is happening.
If you hear the word “demonstrate” used in the context of performance, it is like seeing a dead canary in a mineshaft. Don’t breathe in!
People demonstrate that they have something. It is a proof. You demonstrate how to bake a cake, or you demonstrate that you can play violin to grade 4 standard.
Demonstrate is about show and tell, literally. Show people how good you are by telling them. Performance measures in this instance are not tools to be used, they are facts to be told. Performance measures are for somebody else to hear, not for the person whose work is being measured to use.
The thing about “demonstrate” is it assumed that the person demonstrating it already has achieved it. The measure is purely the final flourish. It is not a tool to be used en route, like a map and compass to find your way when climbing a mountain. In the case of “demonstrate” the performance measure is a photo of the mountaineer on top of the mountain with a flag. “There, that should show you”.
Demonstrating rots a performance system. It rots the measures, it disconnects them from purpose and connects them with story telling.
It is very hard, near impossible, to explain this to anyone who has not experienced using performance measures correctly, in the work to understand what is happening so you can act on the system. As with everything, it all comes down to the thinking. If the thinking is rotten, everything below is too. Like the fish rots from the head down. Try explaining this to someone and you will receive a patronising smile, a shaking head and an earnest explanation of the realities of ensuring that organisations deliver. Another key word to watch for, often used together as in “we must demonstrate that we are delivering“. You must be able to hear the assumption in that sentence, that they already ARE delivering, the only task now is to demonstrate this using performance measures.
This bad practice is common in command and control management thinking. It is an essential part of Management By Objectives (MBO) which is how command and control organisations cascade objectives down through the organisation. As the objectives cascade down, the performance measures go back up. That’s what they are for, to go upwards to demonstrate the delivery, tell the story.
Now what sort of story going back up an organisation will that be? Will it have a happy or a sad ending? Neither! Not normally anyway.
I’ve never worked in organisations like the Moonies or Scientology, where there is shiny smiling fixed grins to accompany the story. People don’t do that, they’re not cult victims.
Instead think of a bitter-sweet RomCom like Notting Hill or Love Actually. There is struggle, heading in the right direction, accomplishing things whilst experiencing a few minor setbacks, but ultimately getting there whilst learning a few life lessons on the way. Something a bit heart warming, at the end people glance around at each other, see the essential goodness within and smile a wry smile at each other, “yeah, yeah, we got there in the end“.
This is a story. Stories are to be distrusted. They’re a filter, they take some information, leave a lot out, use some. This man below says this very well indeed. He says if you think in terms of stories, you will be telling yourself the same thing over and over. Stories are simple, memorable (when was the last time you heard Goldilocks and the 3 bears?) and humans think like this. No persuasion needed to think in terms of a story.
[If you don’t have time to watch it here is the transcript]
Whats wrong with people fooling themselves with harmless good news stories? Sure beats pessimistic doom-merchants. No harm done?
No! The Performance Paradox is harm done!
The Performance Paradox is an odd myth circulating in the public sector which purports to explain why public satisfaction with services is decreasing whilst performance indicators and inspection reports show an increase in quality and efficiency. There is a huge mismatch between these two stories, but which one is believed by people delivering the services?
“people’s experience of services (especially so-called ‘visible’ services such as clean streets, parks and open spaces etc.) is an important determinant of public confidence. As the public has a low awareness of official performance information, it is imperative that we find alternative ways of communicating information about local public services” [link]
The solution to this paradox is that the public are clearly being misled by judging the actual quality of services by… the actual quality of the services, so therefore there is a clear need to communicate the official story to them more effectively! Then they can disregard their own experience and instead read an official document.
If you tell yourself a story, you will disbelieve others stories. The public is wrong in their belief about public services, they need communicating too more effectively, it is not a problem of managing services it is a problem of managing the narrative. This is the harm done. Placing the internal story you create to tell yourself over the actual reality experienced by service users.
This is where using performance information to demonstrate will lead you to. Believing your own story. And who is the easiest person in the world to fool?
As well as the telegraph and carrier pigeon you can now get all your ThinkPurpose news via twitter. Click on the follow me button on top right. Some spoon-head has already stolen the name @Thinkpurpose. Pay no attention to this fraudster!
Instead the name is @thinkingpurpose, a descriptive verb rather than an imperative. An adjective even! God the excitement never starts does it?