The Single Best Thing You Must Do To Find Useful KPIs

March 5, 2013 by Stacey Barr

Weasel words are words that have no specific and obvious and singular meaning. They bring no clear images to mind of what is meant. Words like: effective, sustainable, harnessed, connectedness and leveraged. Weasel words have a stupifying effect on people’s understanding of goals that are written with them, as well as rendering those goals immeasurable.

If your goals or objectives (the things you’re trying to measure) contain words like these, you are either struggling to find meaningful measures, or you don’t realise that the measures you have aren’t meaningful. Here’s but a sample:

…accelerate, accessibility, accountability, active, adaptive, advocating, affective, alignment, balanced, barriers, basic, benchmarked, benefits, best practice, brand (image), capacity, centrality, challenges, change, client-driven, collaborative, compelling, competence, competitive, connectedness, considered, consultative, continuing, core, delivery, demonstrated, deployable, dis-established, diversity, drive, dynamic, effective, efficient, embedded, empowered, enablers, end-to-end, end-user, evidence-based, focus, foster, empowered, engaged, enhancements, excellence, fit for purpose, flexibility, flourish, forward-looking, fundamental, going forward, gold-plating, governance, ground-breaking, growth, harness, harvested, high-value, holistic, implications, improvements, inclusive, initiation, innovative, input, integration, integrity, interdependent, interface, issues, key, lean, leveraged, livability, mandated, needs, network, opportunities, optimised, outcomes, outputs, oversighting, ownership, pathways, participation, performance, priority-driven, proactive, processes, productivity, products, progression, progressive, quality, reanimate, recognition, re-engerise, reform, reliability, renewal, responsibility, responsive, rich, rigourous, roadmap, robust, significant, solution, special, standards, strategically, streamlined, strengthened, strong, successful, supported, sustainable, synergies, targeted, transformation, translational, transparent, underpinning, uniqueness, utilised, value, value-added, vanilla solutions, vibrant, wellbeing, winning, world-class, zoomify…

Goals written with weasel words sound like the following examples (‘harvested’ from the first few pages of Google search results for the terms ‘strategic plan 2013’ and ‘corporate plan 2013’). I’ve highlighed the words that, before we tried to design measures or KPIs, I would ask my client to explain the meaning of:

  • Embolden our focus on learning and teaching excellence.”
    – from a university
  • Develop, implement and evaluate innovative ways of enhancing our value to clients and stakeholders
    – from a native title tribunal
  • Ensure open and transparent processes and consistent approaches to decision-making”
    – from the same native title tribunal
  • “The Society will leverage existing special events to develop partnerships with participating organisations”
    – from a not-for-profit charity
  • “We will inspire and empower our community to be active lifelong learners by creating, promoting, advocating and connecting people to diverse and rich learning opportunities.”
    – from a council library
  • Drive, at a State and national level, the development of an innovative, flexible and responsive training sector”
    – from a government department of training and workforce development
  • “Maintain integrity, accountability, transparency and quality in the governance, performance and reporting of our activities.”
    – from the same government department of training and workforce development
  • Advocating for evidence-based policy reform”
    – from a cancer council
  • “To represent and lead the AOD sector at a national level by promoting effective policies, strategies and approaches that address AOD related harm
    – from an alcohol and drugs council
  • “A strong, effective and sustainable organization, providing excellence and innovation in custodianship of the community’s resources
    – from a local government organisation
  • “To deliver high quality and consistent services.”
    – from an aged care organisation
  • Attracting and serving a diverse and inclusive membership worldwide…”
    – from a physics society
  • Sustainable development of mining industry”
    – from an economic development agency
  • “[Provide] inclusive mental health and well-being programs and services that are evidence-based, culturally sensitive and responsive to individuals, communities and service providers.”
    – from a mental health care provider
  • Building community capacity and expanding our sphere of influence to achieve better outcomes
    – from a disability support organisation
  • Intensifying customer engagement and ensuring progress works in harmony with heritage values.”
    – from a cultural entertainment venue
  • Develop a skilled, engaged and healthy workforce.”
    – from a bus company

To measure weasely goals like these, you have to replace the weasel words with words that describe what you would see or detect in some way if your goal was actually achieved. If you can’t replace them (the “our plan is already cast in stone” situation), then you have to at least translate or define them.

Here are three tips for how to de-weasel your goals:

Tip #1: Write down everyone’s answer to the question “what does this mean?” If those answers have more weasel words in them, ask the question again. And again. And again. Until you don’t have any weasel words left.

Tip #2: Explain your goals to a 10-year old until they can rearticulate those goals in their own words. Maybe their words are the best words to use?

Tip #3: List examples of what those weasel words are trying to describe. Detailed and specific examples. Even if you have dozens of them. Which examples best describe the result implied by your weasely goal? Rewrite the goal more closely based on the words from those best examples.

De-weaseling your goals is the single best thing you can do to finde measures that are sensible and useful in achieving those goals!

TAKE ACTION:

Are you brave enough to share a weasely goal or two from your organisation? If you are, post it on the blog and I will respond with tips to help you de-weasel it.

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  1. James Creelman says:

    Excellent advice Stacey. I particularly like the advise re explaining the goals to a 10 year old. I have a 10 year old son, who always asks me “What job do you do Daddy.” That I can’t explain this to him concerns me!!!

    James

  2. Stacey Barr says:

    I’m so disappointed!

    I expected this post to generate lots of great discussion and sharing of goals.

    Was it too confrontational? Did you disagree with my views? Is it inappropriate to share your goals for public discussion?

    • Anne Maddock says:

      Hi Stacey …still struggling to unlesh myself of 30 odd years of building a dictionary of weasal words, would find it really useful to have some more examples of how to de-weasal. I suppose I am only one week into this new learning but I am in a bit of a hurry

      • Stacey Barr says:

        Anne, here are a few practical steps (please keep in mind this takes me nearly an hour to teach and coach in my PuMP workshop, so we’re just skimming the surface here):

        1) Recognise the weasel words and highlight them with a highlighter pen.

        2) For each weasel word, ask “What do I really mean by this?”, “How would I explain what this means to a 10-year old?” Write down your answers to these questions. Beware: you may not really know what you meant by those weasel words, or it might turn out you mean LOTS of different things.

        3) Try to rewrite your goal using the answers to the above questions. If you end up with lots more goals, or very long-winded goals, it’s a clue you need to do some prioritising.

        4) Remind yourself that goals should be focused and clear. If you have too many and they are covering too broad an area, then you wouldn’t be able to achieve them anyway. To achieve things with excellence, we need to be focused.

  3. Don Jones says:

    Another great posting. I don’t know why, but I have to be reminded frequently about these weasel words in goals.

    One thought I had is that you need to be able to describe evidence of the current state before you can say that completing your goal resulted in improvement; if you don’t know what evidence to analyze or collect, your goal is probably too fuzzy or weasly.

    The other thought I had is that a Process needs to have a purpose or goal, and that needs to be clear and based on evidence that can be measured; evidence that relates to the factors that will drive increased satisfaction for the customer-stakeholders of the process.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Don, starting with the customer or stakeholder is a perfect way to identify the results. And you’re right, in my experience, that if you can’t measure it, it’s not clear enough yet.

  4. Marty says:

    One of my favorites so far. As with most things in life, I agree with some and disagree with other parts.

    Agree: Weasel words make it impossible to measure attainment of the goal. This clearly goes against the “SMART” rules for goals. These goals are anything but “specific” or “measurable.”

    Disagree: That these are necessarily “bad” goals. OK, I say this with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. But, when I work with top leadership, I don’t mind a vague goal…because it allows the next level, the level tasked with achieving the goal, permission to define (clarify, or de-weasel) the goals. This allows the next level down to take ownership of the goal.

    Besides the lack of specificity (clarity) of most of these weasel goals, they also suffer from a lack of singularity. Nature abhors a vacuum and Strategic Planners should abhor a compound. There should be no commas and no “and” conjunctions in the goal. If the compound is believed to be accurate, you have multiple goals masquerading as one.

  5. Stacey Barr says:

    James, thanks for your comment. Great that you have a 10 year old to practice on! I’m sure he’d be thrilled to understand what you do for a job. I reckon examples are a great place to start. It’s easier then, to generalise still in a meaningful and non-weasely way, when you have examples as your starting point.

  6. Stacey Barr says:

    Don, it does take a while to replace the weasel word habit with a better practice. It’s so ingrained!

    When you say about ‘defining the current state’ you’re really talking about evidence of the result as it is now. And that helps tremendously with working out how to measure it. That’s steps 2 and 3 of the PuMP Measure Design technique.

    And I totally agree with you about every process needing a purpose (I am assuming you mean business or work processes). That purpose implies certain performance results too, just like goals and objectives imply performance results that should be measured.

  7. Stacey Barr says:

    Marty, the dialogue to clarify a vague goal sure is important. But isn’t it also rework? If a goal is made non-weasely to begin with, it will be faster for people to understand it. Doesn’t mean the dialogue won’t happen. It will. But with clarity at the outset, the dialogue will be able to focus on “how do we contribute?” as opposed to “what the heck does this even mean?”

    Compound goals – yes I agree! In PuMP we call them “multi-barreled”. You’re the only other person I’ve heard mention this as a problem. Thanks for contributing, Marty.

  8. Cheryl says:

    Okay, Stacey, here’s one. At the Water District we go through a process of flushing out our pipes to ensure everything works and we get out any crud in the pipes. We go section by section to accomplish this and want to use as few resources as possible while doing a through job of it.

    “Flushing process is accomplished efficiently” is what that crew came up with as their Desired Result and I’m having a hard time figuring out how else to word it. Various things go into it – how much water is used, how long it takes, how many people were utilized, how long the piece of pipe… So there are several things we can measure, but I’m not sure how to get ‘efficient’ out of the Desired Result…

  9. Stacey Barr says:

    Cheryl, you’re on the right track when you say “various things go INTO it…”

    My friend David Wilsey is teaching my PuMP Blueprint workshop today and tomorrow, here in Atlanta (I’m here to support him). Today he talked about defining what efficiency is: it’s the ratio of outputs to inputs. So perhaps some ideas for a more measurable version of your goal could be:

    – pipes are fully flushed using the least amount of water possible per thousand feet of pipe
    – pipes are fully flushed using the least amount of staff hours possible per thousand feet of pipe
    – pipes are fully flushed in the least time possible per thousand feet of pipe

    These might sound a bit clunky at first, and you’d certainly need to tailor the wording, but the truth is it’s easier to de-weasel ‘efficiency’ when you clearly define the outputs and inputs.

  10. Mike Adamson says:

    Great post as usual, Stacey! Similar to having a 10 year old reword it, I encourage people to have a co-worker in another department explain how they would know if the goal was accomplished. Even better if that co-worker is an internal customer! If people that have some inkling what you do can’t explain how they would “see” the results, you’re probably using weasel words.

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