To Prove Or To Improve – What Are KPIs For?

by Stacey Barr

Do you want KPIs to PROVE what you’re doing and achieving? Or do you want KPIs to help you IMPROVE what you’re doing and achieving?

PROVE spelled with wooden blocks. Credit https://www.istockphoto.com/au/portfolio/domoskanonos

This might sound like a loaded question, but it’s not. Most readers of my articles are probably biased toward the belief that KPIs are about improving performance. I know I am (despite writing a book called Prove It!).

But you and I tend to have world views that are based on values like self-actualisation, service, collaboration, discovery and insight, synergy and wisdom. There are many other people whose world views are based on values like self-preservation, security, self worth, obedience, tradition, social affirmation, achievement and competition. And they are probably biased toward the belief that KPIs are about proving performance.

Our roles also bias us toward proving versus improving with KPIs. For people who are focused on process improvement, strategy execution and innovation, it’s easy to believe that measurement is mostly about improving. For people who are focused on winning resources, satisfying external stakeholders and meeting regulations, it’s easy to believe that measurement is mostly about proving.

That’s why it’s useful to use KPIs for both purposes: to prove the results we’re creating, and to improve the results we’re creating. Our purpose depends on context:

Prove With KPIs
Improve With KPIs
To answer the question: is it good enough?
To answer the question: can we make it better?
To inform the perspective of external stakeholders.
To inform the perspective of internal team members.
To satisfy the requirements of transparency.
To fulfil the requirements of accountability.
To evaluate our business experiments and strategy execution.
To design our business experiments and strategy execution.
To keep reactive people satisfied while improvement happens.
To make sure improvement happens.
To feel in control of the results we’re responsible for.
To increase our control over the results we’re responsible for.

 

If we want better engagement in performance measurement in our organisations, we need a more complete appreciation of what different people, with their different world views and roles, need KPIs to help them with.

KPIs are about proving performance and improving performance; not one or the other.
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  1. Bill Wiest says:

    Hi Stacey,

    For myself, I never thought Prove It! was about proving an organization’s performance. However, from reading over this post I see what you mean about how someone might have that impression, but only if they had never read anything by you before. I’d say it’s pretty clear you are all about continual IMprovement and the only thing we are proving is whether or not we are improving 🙂

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Bill, you’re right. Despite my bias for ‘proving whether or not we are improving’ (love that!), we need to start where our audience is, and many leaders are still stuck in the need to prove in the judgmental sense. I can only hope they pick up the book and then go through the journey to that place you describe.

  2. Chris Hallwright says:

    Hi Stacey,

    Think “prove” as in proving a pudding – where the proof is in the eating. Or “the exception proves the rule” – that would be a contradiction in the “demonstrate the truth of” sense of “prove”.

    But both make sense in the older meaning of “prove” meaning “test”.

    So: “Test it” – is a way to understand your second book’s title that works for me!

    Cheers, Chris

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Chris, I really like this. And agree that ‘test it’ speaks more to the intention of the book. Recently on LinkedIn, however, I had some good reactions to the above article, where people expressed almost relief that someone had acknowledged the ‘prove’ side of measurement (not so much the ‘test’ aspect), which came as a surprise to me! We’re all in different places when it comes to measuring performance.

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