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Performance Management - Exploding the Myth

  1. The biggest danger to be averted is that a ‘Performance Management System’ (the abbreviation to PMS may or may not have some comparative validity) becomes an end in itself. When this happens both managers and their direct reports easily find ways to subvert, avoid, corrupt and generally undermine it. It can become an object of ridicule.
  1. The essential ‘trick’ is to keep it as simple as possible. After all the real purpose of a ‘PMS’ should be no more and no less than to ensure that a person ‘does their work better today than they did yesterday, and better tomorrow than they did today’. In this basic ‘definition’ is found the important notion of individual growth and development leading, in turn, to advancement and (with it) motivation.
  1. In this endeavour and with this aim, what is required is a logical and straightforward system that creates a formal opportunity for a manager and his/her ‘report’ to sit down once a month, undisturbed and uninterrupted, and engage in a ‘dialogue’ about performance problems and solutions. As far as possible such a meeting should be one between ‘equals’.
  1. This concept of ‘equals’ is based upon the fact that, while the ‘superior’ may have more authority and therefore greater accountability, it is the ‘subordinate’ who is closer to the point of control and thus in a position to provide more insightful performance improving ideas and solutions. This approach also has the advantage of infusing the final decision with greater commitment from below.
  1. The formal ‘dialogue’ obviously must be given a fairly tight focus. The monthly session needs to be about the main work/performance issues. The conversation must be directed towards specific objects that, when taken together, capture what needs to be done in order to achieve the desired business outcomes. In other words the traditional ‘KPA’s’ or ‘critical objectives’.

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  1. Setting down and agreeing as to what exactly these KPA’s should be is therefore a vital first step. Care must be taken to include every aspect of performance outcomes that cover the position in question. At the same time lengthy and long-winded job descriptions are not the answer. The objective is certainly not to lay down a set of tasks and activities to be carried out in a rote fashion. 
  1. The word ‘outcome’ provides the clue. We want to define the ‘outcome’ or ‘result’ desired from carrying out various ‘tasks and activities’ – whatever these may be. And so, besides a list of desired objectives (KPA’s), we will also need a set of clear and measurable performance standards (KPI’s). These underpin the objectives. They are the hard evidence on which to base an objective ‘evaluation’.
  1. The wisest (and most effective) way of kicking off the job of developing these objectives with their supporting standards, is to let the ‘subordinate’ have the first crack at it. These are then passed to the manager for approval. Invariably much constructive discussion and debate results – often long overdue! But the result is a two or three page document that both can live with for ‘launching’ purposes.
  1. Using this document as the foundation, the reporting ‘subordinate’ puts together a ‘monthly report’ that simply expresses his/her considered opinion as to whether the performance standard in question is being achieved. Many years ago Louis Allen identified 3 possible and sensible responses: OK’ = on track & I have no problem; ‘V’ = a ‘variance’ from the standard but I have it in hand; and ‘E’ = an ‘exception’ and I need help.
  1. The accuracy or otherwise of the distinctions between these 3 responses is not the point. It matters little that an ‘OK’ for Paul is seen as a ‘V’ for Liz. What matters above all is that the ‘monthly report’ has acted as a trigger, even catalyst, for both to sit down and engage in a meaningful discussion on the most important binding and sustaining factor in their relationship – performance!
  1. The ensuing dialogue becomes a problem solving discussion that strives to improve performance through agreeing on new actions, or old actions better executed, that will have the positive effect of turning ‘E’s’ into ‘V’s’ and ‘V’s’ into ‘OK’s’. In so doing ‘performance’ in all its facets begins to move along an upward curve. More things get done right, first time, more often.
  1. The role of the consultant brings balance and objectivity. It ensures that the ‘system’ does not degrade into a punitive and pointless exercise. The consultant plays a vital role at point 8 above and, as the system spreads through the organisation, ensures that ‘vertical traceability’ and ‘horizontal compatibility’ is maintained across different job objectives and their underpinning standards.
  1. The system works because it is simple. It works because its focus is on why a particular job exists. It works because it applies the irrefutable logic that ‘if you cannot measure it – you cannot manage it’. It works because it is not solely reliant on messy print-outs that are rarely analysed let alone positively acted upon. It works because it is not based upon subjective point scoring to justify negative appraisals.
  1.  At the end of the day it works because it requires two well intentioned people, with the best interests of the business at heart (and as their common bond), to sit down at fixed and regular intervals and, in a formal and disciplined way, to objectively discuss what things need to be done differently, and what different things need to be done, to deliver better results all round.
  1. Finally, where necessary and as required, it becomes the iron fist in the velvet glove.

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