How Can We Stop People Gaming Their KPIs?

by Stacey Barr

To stop people from gaming KPIs and sub-optimising performance, we need to balance their focus on both the numbers and their purpose.

Incomplete jigsaw representing stopping people from gaming KPIs. Credit: https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/TinnakornJorruang

It is important that we look at our KPIs with the right type – not just amount – of focus. In another Measure Up article I wrote about KPI acuity, our aim is to get the 20/20 vision that comes from relevant and sharp KPIs:

  • relevant to what matters
  • sharp and direct evidence of what matters

But how we focus on each KPI is just one part of the puzzle in getting them to improve performance, fundamentally. The other part is to be sure we also focus on the context of those KPIs.

One of our PuMP Blueprint Workshop graduates recently remarked:

I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that, by selecting no more than three measures for each goal, employees would end up trying to game the numbers and optimise one measure at the expense of others that are relevant but that weren’t selected because they didn’t fit in the three-measure limit…

It’s true that in PuMP we limit the number of measures per goal to an ideal maximum of three. If a goal needs more than three measures to provide convincing evidence of its attainment, then it’s not a good goal. It fails two of the measurability tests: it’s either too weasely and vague, or it’s really several goals rolled into one statement.

Goals that fail these measurability tests are open to interpretation (and misinterpretation). And therefore they don’t provide a clear and specific enough context for the KPIs we have chosen to focus on. Without the context, we do, as our PuMP Blueprint graduate feared, run the risk of performance being gamed.

Gaming is a problem that needs to be fixed at its roots, not by trying to compensate for it by holding people to a larger number of KPIs. Gaming can be nipped in the bud in Step 1 of PuMP, where the Measures Team kicks off by exploring continuous improvement as the real purpose of performance measurement. And the rest of the steps in PuMP guide the implementation of KPIs that drive the right behaviour.

If we can keep returning to that true purpose for measurement, and focus both on the right KPIs and their clear and specific context, the team will not need to game their measures. They’ll much more likely use their chosen KPIs to guide them to optimise overall performance.

To reduce the risk of performance measurement reducing to a numbers game, we need a focus on the right KPIs AND their clear and specific context. [tweet this]

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  1. Thanks for the insights, a great reminder of the max 3 measures for goals.
    I have a bit of an issue with the premise of people trying to game their KPIs and the company trying to outgame them. If this is the environment, fiddling with the KPIs is not a sustainable measure, and there are deeper and more fundamental issues that need resolving. Unless people have buy-in and ownership of the KPIs, performance will remain subpar.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Agreed – those fundamental issues are about the beliefs and attitudes and perhaps even awareness, which all contribute to the culture. But we can’t keep using KPIs in the same ways if gaming is happening. Sometimes the KPI conversation can be a catalyst to get to those more fundamental issues.

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