If Your Organisation Isn’t Ready for KPIs, It Needs KPIs

by Stacey Barr |

A common reason for avoiding performance measurement is that the culture isn’t ready yet for KPIs. But the right process of performance measurement can be a fast-acting catalyst for culture change, bringing together purpose, focus, feedback, ownership, collaboration, learning and improvement more quickly and easily.

Pouring a catalyst into a chemical for a fast reaction

Morgan (not their real name) wrote to me recently to let me know he was moving on to a new job, but planned to keep following my work. Morgan had tried for two years to get a shift in his organisation’s approach to performance measurement. But the leaders kept resisting the ideas of evidence-based leadership and continued to make the excuse that the organisation just wasn’t ready for KPIs yet.

Morgan’s situation begs two questions:

  1. What does it mean to be ready for performance measurement?
  2. And then, how do you get ready?

What does it mean to be ready for performance measurement?

Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, might say we need a growth culture:

“In a growth culture, people build their capacity to see through blind spots; acknowledge insecurities and shortcomings rather than unconsciously acting them out; and spend less energy defending their personal value so they have more energy available to create external value.”

It’s not hard to appreciate why a growth culture would frame meaningful performance measurement as a valuable tool. And it’s not hard to appreciate that when measurement is done the wrong way, it catalyses what I call a performance-obsessed culture (I don’t think Tony Schwartz’s term of performance-driven culture it quite right):

“By contrast, a performance-driven culture often exacerbates people’s fears by creating up a zero-sum game in which people are either succeeding or failing and ‘winners’ quickly get weeded out from ‘losers’.”

It’s true that we don’t want a performance-obsessed culture like this. It’s also true that we don’t want a performance-avoiding culture, either. No approach to performance measurement, and the wrong approach to performance measurement, will both lead to these non-growth cultures.

But we don’t need a growth culture before we start the right approach to measurement. In fact, there is strong evidence that successful leaders use measurement to shift the culture to have a healthy focus on performance. To get ready to do this, we need the right approach – not the typical approaches – to measurement.

How do we get ready for performance measurement?

We’re continually learning from our clients around the world what makes performance measurement work, and what makes it stall or fail. And taking the approach that succeeds the most is particularly important if you’re starting out with a leadership team that believes the organisation isn’t yet ready for measuring performance.

Here is the approach that has worked best:

  1. Adopt a deliberate measurement approach. Don’t wing it. Don’t do what you’ve always done (which likely hasn’t worked because of the anti attitude your culture has towards measurement). You don’t really have to make it formal, but definitely make it deliberate.
  2. Start. But start small. Don’t dive into full implementation of performance measurement, for every goal at every level. It will overwhelm and burn people out. Paradoxically, starting smaller speeds up successful implementation.
  3. Start where the energy is. Performance measurement is more social than technical, and it only works when beliefs and attitudes support the reason for doing it. You can stimulate this energy with an interactive activity like the PuMP Mind Map.
  4. Trust the process. It’s oh so tempting to ‘tailor’ a measurement approach to your organisation and your culture. But it’s a trap. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my 25 year KPI career, from all the clients who told me, it’s that you should trust and follow the proven process. When you do trust the process, magical things happen, like finally helping discordant groups find and commit to shared outcomes.
  5. Continue with the right tone. We need the right mindsets for performance measurement. Without them, the dysfunctional beliefs and attitudes and behaviours of the culture you feel isn’t ready for measurement will pervade. Be diligent about making the right mindsets visible and talking about them during each measurement meeting.
  6. Make sure you finish. A timber manufacturing company began using PuMP, with much excitement. And they were doing a brilliant job at making their strategy clear and measurable. But like many other new initiatives they’d taken on, they let it stall as their attention turned to the next bright and shiny initiative. Finishing becomes easier when you have a plan that steps you to the finish line.
  7. Let engagement grow organically. When you give people the opportunity to see what you’re doing with measurement, without pressure or threat or expectation, they can give their buy-in. One of the powerful ways to do this is with a PuMP Measure Gallery.
  8. Keep starting. Where ever you get the next flourish of interest in performance measurement, that’s where you start next. Performance measurement practice will grow in ripples, each ripple larger than the last. That’s the sustainable way to grow a performance culture.

There’s no need to hire expensive consultants. No need to buy elaborate business intelligence and data visualisation apps. No need to get endorsement from anyone. Good measurement practice can start anywhere, and grow into a high-performance culture.

The right approach to KPIs can be a fast-acting catalyst to make the transition to a high-performance culture faster and easier.
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The single best thing you can do, if you keep getting this excuse for not implementing better performance measurement, is to find a champion somewhere in your organisation to start with. Just start.

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