Friday, November 20, 2009


Performance management is meant to be about getting the best out of employees yet instead the process breeds mediocrity and disillusionment. With this article I hope to expose the way performance is invariably calculated, it's pitfalls and suggest how it can be done differently or more correctly, how it can be done according to the evidence obtained from within the practices of a good society.

Somewhere in the middle

Setting goals is a good thing. We should all want to do this. They help us to focus on those areas of our job role that will most benefit us as individuals, our team, it's manager and ultimately both the customer and the business. It is therefore strange that companies so often make a hash of performance setting and reward.

Invariably most large companies will use a simple measure to budget for performance related bonuses. A bell-curve. Few people are budgeted to receive a very poor performance rating and therefore no bonus, as well as very few are budgeted to do extremely well. The bell-curve is designed for mediocraty, where the majority will fall somewhere in the middle. It is this budgeted measure that now impacts the true value of goal setting.

If you are less than aware of the dark art of performance grading you will have yet to learn about 'consolidation'. This is where your performance rating is then compared against your team mates, right up to comparisions with other team members of different areas making up the same department. Essentially, if the budget states that only 5% of employees are to receive the top end of the bonus scale, then if a department exceeds this quota, you will have to decide who gets into that 5% and who gets pushed back.

What you might not be aware of is that most companies will have a process for exceeding their quota yet it requires paperwork and the strong will of your managers.

In effect, if you do very poorly or extremely well, you could be bumped up or down according to how the business has prepared their budget. And without the strong will of your management team, you are going to be preferably squeezed into the comfort of the middle. It is the middle where most budget resides and the least scrutiny paid.

What does this practice really mean? The weak scrape through and continue to erode the customer experience and business goals. Those that excel are demoted in both recognition and enthusiasm, which in turn will show in how well the customer is treated and business goals achieved.

Taking a purely rational, factual based view of the way most large companies manage performance, mediocrity is the goal. It is easier and cheaper to budget for. The matter that it actually affects employees, the business and the customer is less of a concern. Such affects do not appear in the budget.

Excellent until proven otherwise

What if the curve was different? What if everyone was expected to excel in achieving the goals they have set? What if no one was expected to do poorly? Does that mean you are aiming for excellence, or are you essentially making it easier for the weak to hide and setting no challenge for those that thrive on being better than their peers?

Whilst I feel the argument is strong, it is only strong because of poor management. And the quality of management is not down to the individual manager, but the structure of teams.

Mandate or motivate?

For a team to be effective it needs to have clear direction and simple processes. Individuals need to work together and support one another. Drive to achieving a business goal needs to be at the core of the team. So what needs to be managed?

Individuals are less likely to need management if everything is clear and their peers are aligned to support them. Therefore management is there only to deal with ambiguity as a result of change. Change in customer behavior, in business goals, and in personal circumstances.

A team, no matter the size, can deal with change providing it is broken down simply. The roles of the individuals are clear and empowerment to succeed is strong. Whether a colleague goes off sick, or the customer's stop buying as much, the team are most likely to respond well to the change provided they are permitted to.

So where does that leave a manager? Well, other than the title, nowhere. What it does open up is the opportunity foe someone to be placed as a leader. Someone who can coach and mentor the team and the individuals to excel. Someone who can act as an ambassador between teams. Someone who will protect and nurture the team.

This is not an outlandish concept that has never been tried. It is in fact the core of society. Management is an invention of man based on monarchies and slavery of past. You don't need to be managed. You get up in the morning, go to work, pay your bills, and so on... all without a manager. You do however have the respect for others who have clarity of thought, share knowledge and show both compassion and drive. It is these people we look to when personally we don't see a solution, when we don't have the answer or when we simply have lost our way. We look to these people as our leaders.

So if you budget for excellence across the company, empower your teams and provide good leadership, how do you monitor performance?

Black on white

Performance is based on 1 single and very simple criterium. Did you achieve the goal? Yes or no.

How do you measure how well that person did at achieving that goal? How do you determine if that goal was met at the sacrifice of another? How do you know that achieving that goal was easy or hard for the individual?

Whilst relevant, these questions are only relevant when the goals are unclear.

"Make money" - is not a goal. It's ambiguous and invokes the questions of measure. "Demonstrate an improved relationship with the customer where they spend more money with us than they have in the past" - is much better. On achieving this goal the detail is inherent.

At this point does it matter of whether the person was working to the best of their ability or not? The goal has been achieved and an incentive applied. But the question is then how do you get people to excel?

Driving towards excellence

Performance ratings based on goals are not going to demonstrate this. To measure someones ability to excel based on meeting goals then becomes undeniably subjective and emotive. No performance measure should be left to this as it will demeritise the whole process to that of a popularity contest.

If you want to recognise excellence, you have to recognise it at it's source. When it happens. In the same way you would also nip bad behavior as soon as it arises. Much like receiving a speeding ticket days after the offence. It's a bit late to be contemplating driving more slowly. As logic would suggest, you don't send out rewards to drivers who kept to the speed limit - that's the point after all, the job at hand. So how would you notice someone who was undeniably courteous and excels in careful driving? Through the recognition of other drivers. Through on the spot reward. A simple wave rewards the driver who courteously allows another in to a busy lane. A thank you at the end of a safe journey from the passengers. It is recognised and rewarded as it happens.

The great thing about recognising excellence as it happens is that it is infectious. Once one person has let someone into a busy lane and received their wave as reward, so does that driver make space at the next intersection and so on. Even casual observers become infected. Drivers behind you begin to let in other cars and so on.

Excellence is everywhere and happens all the time. A manager, particularly one constantly in meetings, will be exposed to less of this happening within their team. It is therefore essential than the guidelines are clear for how rewarding can be done and get everyone doing it.

In summary

- Budget for excellence not mediocrity.
- Set clear achievable goals based on evidence.
- Lead your team don't manage them.
- Give everyone the opportunity to recognise and reward excellence as it happens.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Where would we be today?

Written some time ago, 22 July 2004, for another blog. It carries the theme of my last post 'False ceilings' nicely. Enjoy.

Fear of the unknown both intrigues and yet holds back the development of mankind. We are at a number of moral intersections with so many new technologies. Going forward has risks. Risks that we don’t fully understand or can even be sure of. We can speculate, but we can’t be sure. So what do we do?

When da Vinci first invented the flying machine to when the Wright brothers first flew one, do you think they considered the profound affects of their work? Do you think they timidly explored their ideas, or do you think they just did it? When the first seed was first sewn, when the first doctor made his first incision, or when the first injection was first administered… do you think any of these happened with a full understanding of their actions? Mankind has developed from taking risks we don’t fully understand, and at every set-back we’ve improved our understanding and moved forward again. Were we creating irreparable damage, were we furthering mankind?

When Babbage set about inventing the first computer, I somehow doubt he was too worried about potential risks. Once the first valve-operated computer was built, the Americans put it to work to predict the trajectory of a bullet: to build a better weapon, to be a better killer. Today’s computers help us to work out from the wound of a slained victim the trajectory of that bullet: to capture their killer, to build a better defence. A double edged sword full of risk and potential yet we still harness the power of the computer and move forward for the benefit of mankind. The same cannot be said about all technologies.

When NASA first set about exploring the moon we faced risks, not fully understanding them, we did it anyway. We landed on the moon. As long as the risks were contained, NASA kept going. Yet at the first ‘visible’ setback, ‘fear’ shot to the forefront of the public’s mind, leaving the progression of mankind in its wake. We now nervously send people in to space. We cautiously step out in to the new frontier. The space programme has in the last 25-years, only now started to regain ‘some’ momentum with the possibility of Mars being a rich resource for mankind. Our own moon, sitting upon our own doorstep, remains a vastly unexplored entity.

We have seen what can be achieved in less than 25 years. Where would we be today if the momentum of the space programme never died down? Imagine if we faced everything with intrigue and not in trepidation? Where would we be today? Dig up the sceptics of da Vinci’s flying machine and take them on a flight to anywhere in the world. Dig up our sceptics in 100-years from now and take them on a flight to the stars. Apply this to genetic science and nanotechnology. Where would we be today? Where would we be in 25 years?

False ceilings

The sky's the limit. Well, even that sounds a bit restrictive in this day and age. Are there really any true limits? If there was ever a saying that was due for an overhaul in modern culture, this is the one. Yet even if we chose the moon or the stars as limits it wouldn't be long before even these would be deemed as narrow minded.

The question we should ask ourselves about limits: Why do we feel compelled to set them?

In the workplace we rarely focus on the skies, unless you're in the air force, instead we talk about glass ceilings. Arbitrary heights within an organisational structure which we feel are fixed. A point in the hierarchy which we cannot go any further.

A call centre operative has no business bypassing their team leader, let alone the supervisor or floor manager. Heaven forbid that such an individual could compare notes with the CEO.

Bizarrely it works the other way round too. Our own ceilings become the floors for others. A CEO feels compelled to respect the boundaries others have set and has no position to engage with anyone below his or her senior management team.

And happily the call centre operative and the CEO remain forever detached. The true reason for what happens when a call is received is buffeted by hundreds of glass ceilings or floors from the ears of a CEO. As is the true reason a CEO is compelled to drive a particular strategy, distilled and filtered through the layers, to reach the operative in a light and palatable way.

The ceilings appear to serve a purpose. One which prevents the many interacting with the few, and vice-verse. A self protecting mechanism to ensure everyone remains focused on what they are meant to deliver for the organisation. Blissfully unaware of any truth of reason. Time and money are well spent. Each other protected from scrutiny, protecting our own imaginative constructs.

The fact and beauty about glass ceilings is that nobody else can see them but you. And the cold hard truth is that the only reason this is so is because you put them there. And what's more... they aren't real. They are fake.

Looking through the glass, do you notice who is on the other side? What is holding that ceiling in place? If you stood back from it all, would you be able to see how many ceilings you have installed? No one else is to blame.

To break through ceilings, and the skies, past the moon and the stars, we have to recognise them as the self manifested limitations that we pose upon ourselves and make available for others to exploit.

Opportunities have afforded all of us to be in the positions we are. Whether good or bad. And yet opportunities are not finite. They are in plentiful supply, waiting to be snapped up. Exploitable to those that dare try.

Sadly the reason why we accept false limitations is that we become complacent. Happier where we are. Taking the easy road. Setting up our own barriers to keep ourselves insular. Protected. Defining strategies for keeping ourselves exactly where we already are. Right here. A comfortable place for not just us, but everyone else too.

Why work harder or smarter? Why learn new ways around obstacles? We believe we all have the tenacity and drive to do better. Yet when faced with an equal, your self appointed ceiling's protector, an individual just like you or me, set with their own self-harmonizing strategy, we choose to back down. Why speak up? Why challenge? Why try to remove that ceiling? No one wants their comfy, secure place in the world to be disturbed.

It's easy to see why someone else would protect their own position in your imaginary tower. If you challenge their position in your tower of false ceilings, they too will need to go poking around in their ceiling rich environment. Rather than do this it is much easier to help encourage your own self-doubt and promote your delusion as a reality.

You'll either realise this now and do something about it, or you will console yourself by finding others who have put in the same self-imposed false ceilings to compare notes. You will either break through, or you will snuggle up underneath.

The CEO, protected by their personal assistant. The senior manager protected by their management teams. Middle and junior managers protected by their supervisors and team leaders. The call centre operative protected by their peers. A seemingly endless list of false ceilings or floors that you have chosen to see. False ceilings that if removed expose areas which you feel are full of challenges that you may not cope with. Filled with uncertainty and contempt for your being there.

Ask yourself, who are the ones that make it higher in an organisation? The ones that remain confined by their glass ceilings, or the ones that chose not to see them in the first place?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Leadership for beginners

I often find myself chatting with wannabe leaders who are struggling to be heard. Leadership is such a desirable quality that not achieving it is too hard to bare. Why do some seem to be oozing with leadership from every dimple in their perfectly chisled faces and yet for others it seems so damn hard?

Leadership is hard. Even for the motivatonal gurus we place on pedestals. It takes practice, mistakes, reading, learning, listening and experimenting. It's a skill. And like all skills, you have to work hard to obtain them.

On a recent read of Malcolm Gladwell's new title 'Outliers' he unearths the 10,000 hour rule. This rule explains why professionals at the top of their game, no matter if it is sport, music, business... anything, they achieve their ability through continuous hard work. 10,000 hours of the stuff. Something the gurus have devoted their careers too.

It's not hard to see why we find ourselves struggling to be seen as leaders when so much is needed to become one. Sure, charisma and style go to count towards someone being thought of as a leader. But being a leader requires so much more.

The advice here is not to be to quick to think you're a leader, nor too quick to suppose you'll never be one. Natural leadership fails to exist without nurture. Whilst it might take some of us our entire adult working lives to become one, becoming one is in itself a tremendous experience from which all those around you can benefit.

A little analogy I offer to those that find it so hard:

"The leader is not the shepherd whistling out his orders from afar. A leader is his dog, in amongst all of the sheep, working hard to get the best out of each and every one."

In business you need the shepherd, the manager, to instruct and provide. You also need your flock, you and me, to make the business flourish. And whilst sometimes seemingly too few, you'll find the leaders, keeping the flock together and driving the business forward.