4 Reasons to Stop Looking For KPI Best Practices

by Stacey Barr

If you wait to find KPI best practice in your industry, before improving your performance measures, you’re going to wait too long.

compass with arrow pointing toward best practice

Annabelle (nothing like her real name) works in a university. She was tasked to come up with a new strategic KPI framework for her senior leadership team. Annabelle did create a framework, but got this reaction from the leaders:

“After presenting the framework to senior leadership, they requested I identify one or more universities that have had success with creating and implementing performance management in the education space.”

Annabelle contacted me, asking if I could provide her with a list of universities that have, in her words, “been successful with performance measurement”. I have no such list. And there are several very good reasons why.

Reason 1: KPI best practices are hard to find.

It’s hard to find a comprehensive collection of best practice examples of performance measurement across all sectors, let alone within specific industries or sectors. I think in part it’s because performance measurement is generally done poorly by the vast majority of organisations. At least, this is what I have seen with the hundreds of organisations that have asked me for help, and from my own research.

And the education sector falls closer to the poor end of the spectrum of measurement practice than most. That’s because they have lots of intangible outcomes, which are harder to measure meaningfully. Hence why Annabelle was asked to find a better measurement framework.

Reason 2: Most leaders can’t accurately assess good KPI practice.

Another problem is that, given the generally poor state of measurement practice around the world in all sectors and industries, leaders are not very equipped nor experienced enough to accurately assess their own KPI maturity, nor that of another organisation.

Just say another university were to claim they have KPI best practices, and what they had looked even a little bit better than Annabelle’s university. A claim of best practice isn’t a guarantee of best practice. Who decides? Where is the independent and objective assessment of what constitutes best practices (and poor practices) in performance measurement? The independence and objectivity does not reside in any leadership team that is struggling with KPIs and doesn’t know what to do instead.

Reason 3: KPI best practices are independent of sector or industry.

I’ve never found that I needed industry knowledge or experience, or to even know much about my client, to successfully facilitate them to develop meaningful measures they love. That’s because, in my 20 years of experience, a best practice in performance measurement is to separate the content (their industry, function, priorities and goals) from the process (the KPI approach).

As a performance measurement specialist, my job is to lead them through a KPI approach that I know works (PuMP). Their job is to follow the PuMP techniques and answer the prompts using their content knowledge and industry expertise. And this works every time, because PuMP is logical and practical and has 20 years of application in thousands of organisations of different sizes and types around the world.

I’m confident that leaders of a university can master PuMP more quickly than other organisations, because they’re used to learning and thinking critically. So I encouraged Annabelle to consider asking her leadership team what they were hoping to gain from finding a university that has successfully done measurement before them: Is it inspiration? Or do they hope there will be a shortcut to finding example KPIs they can plug in to their strategy? What they really need is a KPI approach that works, not a KPI approach created for their sector.

Reason 4: KPI best practices don’t automatically integrate with culture.

Bolting on a new KPI approach, or a set of adopted KPIs, has always failed in my observation. It’s done with the greatest of intentions, to save people’s time and get things measured as quickly as possible. But despite good intentions, it fails because KPIs are only integrated in a technical approach.

What’s needed is a social approach. Almost all of the usefulness that comes from KPIs happens in people’s minds. They must understand the real reason that performance is measured. They must own and value and use the measures that are created. People will never accept a KPI approach that doesn’t engage them.

Annabelle’s leadership team is at risk of repeating the failed attempts of the past. She told me “they feel like throughout their careers, they’ve been in some version of the framework conversation I presented many time over.” I’ve heard this from too many people. The past experiences people have with KPIs have disengaged them, and failed to integrate into and build a high-performance culture.

The path to KPI best practice is the pioneering path.

The path to finding a best practice performance measurement approach that has been implemented well in your industry or sector is the slow road. People heading down this road often don’t know what they’re looking for. It takes a long time to find. If they find it, they don’t know how to tell if it’s really best practice. And if they adopt it, it doesn’t seem to fit their “unique” organisation or strategy.

The fast road, counter intuitively, is to become the KPI best practice in your industry or sector. And be the inspiration for others to learn from and follow in your footsteps. Waiting for KPI best practices to come from somewhere else is the worst use of time. Diving into an approach we know works, at least to test it, is the best use of time. It means moving forward.

Would Annabelle’s leadership team consider being the pioneers of KPI best practice in the university sector? She has to work out how to have this discussion with them. But putting forward the above four reasons for discussion is not a bad start.

If you wait to find KPI best practice in your industry, you’ll wait too long. Instead, commit to become the KPI best practice in your industry, and progress will be faster.
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Another better alternative to waiting to find KPI best practice is to explore how a KPI approach like PuMP might be the fastest way forward. And the PuMP Mind Map exercise is a tool for a powerful discussion to start on pioneering road to KPI best practices.

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