Joy, data (and performance management?)

Performance management is fundamentally a challenge of learning: How can we make sure employees learn from their successes and failures over time to improve their performance?

This is why I was fascinated to watch the inaugural Australian Learning Lecture, delivered by Sir Michael Barber. Barber is a British educationist who has served as head of the global education practice at McKinsey and advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Barber’s lecture focuses on the idea that more measurement leads to both better outcomes and a happier, more successful learning environment. There’s a lot of powerful thinking here that all of us involved in the space of performance management can learn from.

You can watch the lecture below (or jump down for my key takeaways on better performance management).

I took away four points that are highly relevant to how we approach performance management:

One: Measurement is suffering from an image problem

Barber makes the strong argument that “we need to reclaim data as an ally in improving the human condition…In the modern world, Joy and Data are often seen as opposites; the one creative, spontaneous, warm, and spiritual; the other, scientific, bureaucratic, cold and analytical.”

Performance management take-away: Like in education, badly designed and executed performance measurement processes (i.e. rank and yank) have left some with a bad taste in their mouth.

But done well, performance measurement is an empowering conversation about self-development. That’s a conversation that all employees (and students) can buy in to. It’s up to all of us working in performance management to continue to reclaim and reinforce the humanistic side of performance management.

Two: Hard work without measurement is folly

Rapid learning comes at the intersection of knowledge and data. As Barber states in the lecture: “Many people peddle the myth that data undermines creativity and the joy that may come from it.”  But these people ignore that there’s no creativity unless you have a feedback mechanism to improve your own performance over time. And to be effective, that feedback mechanism requires data.

Performance management take-away: In a business environment, performance management is your feedback loop. It’s the constant cycle in your work that facilitates learning and improved performance.

Measurement is the core of the learning process. If you don’t have a feedback loop built on data to guide your behaviour, you’ll never achieve exceptional performance.

Three: Measurement creates the right circumstances for leaders to lead

Greatness is about much more than just data. But good data and measurement creates the right circumstances for leaders to lead.

As Barber stated in the lecture: “[you] cannot mandate greatness; greatness has to be unleashed …[The] role is to create the circumstances in which success is possible while teachers and school leaders lead the way to greatness. Part of the context has to be good, close-to-real time data at classroom, school and system level.” 

Why can’t you mandate greatness? In Barber’s opinion it’s because: “[every] decision requires more than the evidence. It requires judgment, analysis and ethics too. If you put it mathematically it might look like this: DATA x ANALYSIS x ETHICS x JUDGMENT = GOOD DECISIONS”

Performance management take-away: Like in the classroom, measurement enhances the role and impact of leaders.

Rather than displacing the role of leaders, great performance management increases their impact. With more data, leaders have the ability to take better actions faster.

Four: The problem is never the measurement – it’s how humans use the data

The problems with measurement typically come from how humans choose to use the data (not the measurement itself).

To quote from the lecture: “The risk is that through false interpretation of the data or through a failure to recognize that the data is incomplete, human beings mislead themselves; or, worse, that by manipulating the data or the presentation of it, one group of human beings deceives another.”

Performance management take-away: You can implement the best performance management tool in the world (And yes, we think Cognology is one of them!). But it’s equally critical to make sure your people are adequately trained and resourced.

Performance management is a human process. As such, there’s a huge amount of leverage in making sure your people deeply understand the aims of the process and have the resources they need to complete it successfully.

In conclusion

There’s some fascinating thinking in this lecture on how we can use measurement to improve the learning process across the whole of society (and more specifically in the business context of performance management).

Fundamentally, without measured performance there’s no feedback loop. And without a feedback loop, there’s no learning. This is why growing recognition of the importance of measurement makes it an exciting time to be in performance management. Getting measurement right in schools and businesses worldwide has huge potential to improve global happiness, living standards and productivity.

And as always, I’d love to hear what you think of this article. You can add your thoughts in the comments below, or join the conversation on Twitter via @Cognology.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Four graphs that show how performance management has really changed over the past five years

Cognology data shows:

  • Performance management in 2015 is more forward looking, with nearly 2x the focus on future career planning
  • The amount of feedback has significantly increased. The average individual can expect nine feedback events each year (up over 3x since 2011)
  • An increased employee development focus over the past five years, with individual L&D events per employee nearly doubling
  • Managers are more frequently tracking performance. On a per employee basis, there were 108% more performance outcomes recorded in 2014 (compared to 2010)

Performance management continues to evolve rapidly. Sometimes when there’s so much change happening so quickly, it’s easy to lose track of just how far things have moved. So this week, I’m taking the opportunity to dive into our anonymised Cognology product data to examine just how much performance management has changed over the past five years.

Looking at this data from a number of perspectives, I think there’s four interesting trends worth exploring:

Performance management change over the last 5 years

1. Performance management is increasingly forward looking

Over the period from 2010-2014, the focus on employee career planning has nearly doubled. The data shows that the average employee is now adding four progression points into their career plan each year. Each addition defines things that an individual needs to do to take the next step in their career.

As we see this number rise, it’s a sign that both managers and employees are more focused on performance management as a forward-looking activity. This is a very different style of performance management conversation. It’s all about the gap between where you are today and where you need to be tomorrow (rather than just focusing on your performance in the past period).

2. The amount of feedback has significantly increased

The amount of feedback that employees can expect to receive each year has also significantly increased. For the average employee, the number of annual feedback events has risen from just under three in 2011 to nearly nine in 2014. That’s an increase of over 3x in four years! Spreading this feedback out across the year, this increase means that employees received feedback roughly every six weeks in 2014 (compared to once every four months in 2011).

The power of frequent feedback is something I believe in passionately (and have talked about on many occasions, see here and here for two good examples).

This dramatic increase in the amount of feedback received is a fantastic sign (but I’d still argue that once every six weeks isn’t quite enough for most employees). In any case, we’re certainly heading in the right direction.

3. There’s more focus on individual development

Over the past five years we’ve seen individual level L&D events nearly double. These events record things like individual training, learning, coaching and mentoring.

Despite the current cost environment, we’re seeing more individual development happen now than ever before. It’s a great sign that executives clearly understand the ROI of a well-structured L&D program.

4. Managers are more frequently tracking performance

The data also shows that we’re seeing much more frequent tracking of individual performance. In 2014, the average employee had 19.9 performance “results” recorded over the course of the year (up from 9.6 to five years earlier). In our performance management language, a “result” means that an outcome has been recorded against a performance goal. In English, this means that managers are tracking performance against goals and objectives at a much more frequent (and detailed) level.

I know many people would argue this increased accountability is being driven by the current cost environment. My view is that this increase is also tied to the dramatic increase in the amount of feedback, with managers looking to inform better coaching and development planning. Fundamentally, it’s not possible to increase the amount of feedback by 3x without significantly more data!

The market is naturally evolving towards a more agile performance management

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll be familiar with my views on Agile Performance Management (performance management focused on highly frequent feedback and forward looking development). As the data here shows, it’s great to see that the market is naturally evolving towards a more agile version of performance management.

I think it’s also powerful to absorb the fact that this performance management evolution is happening in a cost-conscious market. It reinforces that businesses aren’t making these changes because they’re a ‘nice to have’. They’re moving to more frequent, forward-looking performance management because they can see the hard economic logic. Better performance management makes more money. And that’s an easy business case for all of us to get behind.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.