I was recently chatting with a colleague about performance measures. They were sharing with me a less-than-positive experience having been in an organization that used performance measures in connection with their strategic plan. As we spoke I was reminded that performance measures can be a mixed bag – while they can provide a powerful tool that allows for active management, decision-making, and intentional use of resources, all too often this is not the experience of those who have encountered their use. Well-defined performance measures should tell you where you are in your journey and if you are on track. But often staff experience them as disconnected from day-to-day service and program delivery, not very meaningful or informative, and unrelated to decision-making.
One common reason for this can be performance measures that were defined without a clear understanding of the goals or results for which they were intended to assess.
Let me borrow from an analogy that I first heard in the context of some training through the Balanced Scorecard Institute. Imagine you have planned a road trip that will last several days. You are departing from Boston and your destination is Miami, Florida. You have planned for the road trip to take 3 days, staying overnight twice along the way, and reaching Miami at 10am on the third day. As you drive, you have many instruments on your car’s dashboard that provide you with a variety of data points: your gas gauge will tell you how much gas you have in your tank; your speedometer will tell you your speed at any given moment; your odometer will tell you how many miles you have driven since your departure, your tachometer will tell you your engine’s rpm. Depending on your vehicle you may have a display that tells you additional bits of information like, gas mileage, miles remaining before needing to refill your gas tank, tire pressure, outside temperature, etc. And all of these data points could help you make decisions . . . but they don’t tell you about performance. Why?
Let’s take the case of gas mileage. If your goal is reaching Miami at the determined time, what does gas mileage tell you about your progress or performance? Not much. It may tell you about how quickly you are accelerating, how aggressively you are driving, or if the gas mileage is different than it is usually, it may tell you that something is wrong with your car. However, it doesn’t tell about your performance relative to your goal. No matter how you combine the data from these instruments and displays, they will not tell you anything about whether you will arrive in Miami at the desired day and time.
The point here is that a measure only gives performance data relative to a defined goal or result. In the analogy above that defined result is arriving in Miami by 10am on the third day of travel; and gas mileage is the wrong measure to tell you about performance relative to this goal. This may seem like a pretty obvious point. And it may be, in the context of the analogy above. But in the real world, a mismatch between a selected measure and intended results can happen all too easily. The systems in which we develop performance indicators are inevitably more complicated and nuanced than that discussed in the analogy. Let me point out 3 ways in which this mismatch can arise.
Choosing performance measures based on what data is already available.
When an organization begins to develop performance measures it is not uncommon for staff charged with the task pose the question “What data do we have?” This seems like a reasonable place to start as it anchors the process in something concrete and gives individuals ideas from which to start. However, this often results in selection of measures based on the fact that they are available rather than their being indicators of performance relative to a specific goal or intended result.
Whether a measure can function as a performance measure is dependent on its context
On the face of it, there is no magic formula to determine whether a measure is a “good” performance measure or not. There aren’t identifiable characteristics whereby one can look at a number and say “yup – we found a good one.” Whether a measure can serve well as a performance measure depends first and foremost on the degree to which it provides evidence that the organization is moving toward the intended result. Take the example of gas mileage above. In the analogy, it does not function as a performance measure. But suppose while taking this trip, you also had an overall goal in your life of reducing expenses, or becoming a safer driver. With this extended analogy, gas mileage could serve as a performance measure. If your gas mileage went up, it would tell you that you were using less gas to drive the same distance – an indicator of cost savings; and it would tell you that your braking and accelerating had become gentler – an indicator of safer driving.
Our goals are sometimes under-defined
I often hear folks ask questions similar to “One of our priorities is student engagement. Does anyone have suggestions for performance measures?” And I suspect everyone reading this blog has worked in an organization at one time or another that had a broadly defined priority like “enhance student engagement.” The challenge with such a broad definition is that the question posed above can’t really be answered. There could be a host of measures offered up in response: Number of engaged students, percentage of engaged students, number of engagement opportunities, number of students in registered student organizations, etc. The challenge is that all or none of these might be a performance measure depending on what enhancing student engagement means in a given organizational context. Is the institution looking to involve more students or different students? Is it a matter of breadth or depth of engagement activities? Is the goal to increase the impact of engagement? Without answering questions like this, finding a measure that will truly speak to performance will be impossible.
So, as you think about developing or revising performance measures know that they can be meaningful and impactful . . . just make sure to clearly define your results first and performance measures can help you reach your destination!
Here are some resources to help you on your way:
Do you have additional resources to share, or experiences with performance measures that others can learn from? We would love to hear from you in the comment section!
Daniel Doerr, University of Connecticut