Why You Can’t Measure Your Performance Outcomes…

May 17, 2010 by Stacey Barr

One of the worst immeasurability problems with strategy is the excessive use of ‘weasely’ language. And you’ll know what I mean if your strategy is full of words like efficiency, productivity, sustainability, or even performance outcomes.

Wikipedia explains what weasel words are:

The expression weasel word derives from the egg-eating habits of weasels… An egg that a weasel has sucked will look intact to the casual observer, while actually being empty. Thus, words or claims that turn out to be empty upon analysis are known as “weasel words”. The expression first appeared in Stewart Chaplin’s short story ‘Stained Glass Political Platform’ (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine,… in which they were referred to as “words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell.” Theodore Roosevelt attributed the term to Dave Sewall, claiming that Sewall used the term in a private conversation in 1879…

Weasel saying "I am Weasel"In the political sphere, this type of language is used to “spin” or alter the public’s perception of an issue. In 1916, Theodore Roosevelt argued that “one of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use … ‘weasel words’; when one ‘weasel word’ is used … after another there is nothing left.”

My first exposure to the term was from Don Watson, an Australian political speech writer and author of many books but two in particular to do with weasel words, “Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language” and “Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words”. Irrespective of the source of the term “weasel words”, its impact is profound in our struggles to find meaningful performance measures to align to our strategy and convince us of its execution and achievement.

Look at any strategic plan, perhaps even your own, and the chances are astronomically high that you’ll see aplenty words like effective, efficient, productive, responsive, sustainable, engaged, quality, flexible, adaptable, well-being, reliable, key, capability, leverage, robust, accountable. That’s just scratching the surface of the glut of empty and inert words that sound important and fail to say to anything at all, or at least speak of anything that can be verified in the real world, or measured.

Here are some more examples of strategies rendered meaningless with weasel words:

  • “Provide efficient, unique, unbiased and responsive, high quality support” which is from a military organisation.
  • “Strengthen student engagement and learning outcomes by enhancing student support and intervention services”, from a government education department.
  • “[We] will be a leader in articulating and characterizing the dynamic system of scholarly communication”, from a library association.

Where you have used weasel words, you must define specifically what you mean by them or accept the fact that you’ll forever struggle to find meaningful ways to measure them. And your strategy will remain open for interpretation and any interpretation will do – this is NOT a recipe for high performance.

TAKING ACTION:
Grab a highlighter pen and your strategic or operational or business plan, and highlight all the weasel words – the words that really say nothing at all about performance results. How can you express what those words are really trying to say, in words that make it easier to understand and measure the results they imply?

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  1. Zoe Routh says:

    Haha Stacey you crack me up! Weasel words – drivel indeed! Let’s re-write this one:

    “articulating and characterizing the dynamic system of scholarly communication” -change to –

    “speak in plain English.”

  2. Swapna says:

    Hi,

    an interesting article.

    How would you translate these strategies:
    “Provide efficient, unique, unbiased and responsive, high quality support” which is from a military organisation.
    “Strengthen student engagement and learning outcomes by enhancing student support and intervention services”, from a government education department.
    “[We] will be a leader in articulating and characterizing the dynamic system of scholarly communication”, from a library association.

    to words that can lend themselves to be measured?

  3. Boago says:

    How true. Trying to sound professional in our plans just takes the fun and focus out of planning.I have participated in planning meetings where we have argued endlessly about the measurabilty of objectives like “improve work culture and mindset”, “achieve quality and relevance of education” … Needless to say we are still not agreeing on what it means, but we are executing.

  4. Stacey Barr says:

    Swapna,

    The challenge with trying to make a weasely objective statement more measurable is gaining access to the people and the thinking they did when they originally wrote the weasely objective! You effectively need to have the conversation with those people, about what they really meant, what results they really want to achieve.

    Yes, that means rework. But we can avoid it in the future by taking more care when we write our strategy in the first place.

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