Performance Measurement Metaphors to Get People Engaged

by Stacey Barr

Performance measurement is a left-brain concept which more people can become engaged when metaphors translate that concept for the right brain.

I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like, by Dr Mardy Grothe. Credit: Dr Mardy Grothe

In his book “I Never Metaphor I Didn’t Like“, Dr Mardy Grothe says:

“From the dawn of civilization, human being have tried to understand one thing by relating it to something else. This approach – called analogical thinking – has been extremely helpful as people try to make sense out of a world that can often seem confusing, or even incomprehensible.”

Performance measurement, to many, can seem confusing and even incomprehensible. It seems useful then, to use analogy and metaphor to borrow understanding from a concept people already know, and lend that understanding to performance measurement concepts.

Here is just a small selection of the metaphors our PuMP team use, when we’re introducing a new approach to measurement in our clients’ organisations. The plan is to build this over time, ideally with your input too!

[Forgive me, some of these are analogies – A is like B – and not true metaphors – A is B.]

Getting started with measurement…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
To build buy-in to performance measurement, start with why there isn’t any. Letting people offload their complaints and struggles with performance is a ReubenMiller knife holder – a cathartic experience.
Performance measurement is a process, not an event. It’s a flowchart, not a checkbox.
Measure processes, not people. We cannot blame the taxi driver for the traffic.


Understanding measurement’s purpose…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Performance measures are for learning, not judging. Performance measures are a tool in the hand, not a rod for the back.
Performance measurement’s purpose is continuous improvement. Measuring performance is a health plan, not a post-mortem.


Making our goals measurable…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Use plain language to write your goals, so they can be measurable. Don’t be like the weasel that sucks the content out of eggs, but leaves the shell: don’t have weasely goals that are just a shell of words without meaning.
Write goals as results, not actions. How fast a wheel spins around is irrelevant if it doesn’t get any traction.


Designing meaningful measures…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Don’t brainstorm performance measures. Brainstorming is an upside down funnel, taking a single goal and opening it up to many possible measures. Measurement needs to be a right-side up funnel, considering potential measures and narrowing down to one that is the best evidence of the goal.
Make your performance measures quantitative. In France, there are
5 basic sauces a chef must master, from which they can create a wide variety of recipes. So is the case with the
5 basic quantification formulas: they are all you need to create a wide variety of measures.
Before choosing a measure for a goal, check for its unintended consequences. Performance measures have a butterfly effect.


Building buy-in to measures…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Socialise your performance measures to build buy-in. A Measure Gallery is like an art gallery experience, where the art is your goals and performance measures.
Let the buy-in for performance measurement grow organically. Involve people in measuring performance in ripples, not a tsunami.
Better measures start with better buy-in. Buy-in and ownership are like the oil for a car engine where measures represent the mechanics. Without oil, you are left with a bunch of mechanical parts that won’t take you where you want to go. (Thanks
Ayca Tumer Arikan for this metaphor!)


Implementing measures…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Each measure needs a clear definition. The ‘wild west’ of performance measurement is caused by lack of rules about how each measure should be implemented. (Thanks Chris H. for this metaphor!)
Data matters more than dashboards. Beautiful dashboards that try to float on poorly defined data are mega-yachts that run aground in shallow waters.

Garbage in, garbage out.

Every measure’s definition needs to be managed. Like a library for your measures.


Interpreting signals from measures…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Focus on patterns, not points. Get off the variation-explanation rollercoaster.
Always show measures in time series. Don’t become 10-second Tom and only focus on this month compared to last month.
Use XmR charts to find the real signals in your measures. XmR charts are like the tuning dial on a radio that helps you hear the signal rather than the static/noise.


Reporting performance measures…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Performance dashboards should help us manage through time, not in time. Managing business performance is not like driving a car.
Performance reports should answer three questions: what, why and now what? Performance management is problem solving.


Reaching performance targets…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
Focus change initiatives of the cause of performance measure results, not the symptoms. Don’t respond to performance measures with paracetamol.
Reach for targets through leverage, not quick fixes. Performance measures are the fulcrum on which our actions find leverage.
If we’re not improving performance, we’re going backwards. In a flowing river, even standing still requires effort.
Improve performance from your circle of influence, not your circle of control. Improving performance is sailing a boat: if you want complete control, you’ll never leave the port.


The measurement process…

Message Metaphor/Analogy
When one step is 80% good enough, move on. Good measurement practice is iterative, like a nautilus shell gets more strength as each part builds on the previous.
Success loves speed – implement PuMP swiftly. If we ride a bicycle too slowly, we fall off.
Ownership matters more than sophistication. The same as children wanting to try everything for themselves – to own what they learn.


What are your favourite metaphors and stories to illustrate the performance measurement messages important in your organisation?


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  1. Daniel Sanoe says:

    Dear Stacey,

    Thank you very much for the many pieces of Performance Measurement I have received and read from you. This one today is very good. As you said, with analogies it becomes clearer. I am a teacher am am able to relate it with learners IEPs .

    Good work and than you

    Daniel Sanoe

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Daniel, thank you! I’m so glad you like the metaphors. They are brilliant learning tools, and I am so keen to grow this list. I am hoping there will be collaborative suggestions added in these comments…

  2. Maureen Slater says:

    Great article Stacy! Very helpful to the learning process. Another analogy for “Each measure needs a clear definition” – Defining measures is like creating the instructions to assemble a boxed piece of furniture – all the elements need to be considered (which tools, furniture parts, hardware, sequenced directions), so that the end product is built the exact same way no matter who assembles it. :o) Thanks and love the Blog!

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