“If our companies are going to be more profitable, if our strategies are going to be successful, if our society is going to become more advanced – it will be because knowledge workers did their work in a more productive and effective manner.”
Thomas Davenport, Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers. (2005)
Perhaps now, more than at any other time in modern history, we approach a moment of truth as a society, where both the need and the opportunity for societal advancement might just align. We increasingly live in a knowledge economy and yet many organisations have found it challenging to develop ways of working to deliver new and improved outcomes sustainably. Peter Drucker, one of the seminal thinkers on leadership and management, labelled knowledge worker productivity as “the biggest of the 21st century management challenges.”
In my experience of working with organisations the one phrase that I hear more than any other is “metrics drive behaviour”, closely followed by “what gets measured gets done”. Many strive for better measures and new ways to visualise them in the hope that it might just change everything. If we accept the definition of behaviour as “an observable human action” we would conclude that the two statements are barely distinguishable from each other. For many years I accepted the underlying premise unquestioningly because it seems to make perfect sense….we choose measures (typically related to the most important results in the organisation), this provides a signal to employees on where to focus, we create regular review and governance forums, and the increased awareness and focus ensures that everyone can take actions and make decisions in a concerted way that results in improved performance.
So clear, so obvious, so rational, so why doesn’t it work?
The truth is that, whilst fundamental, “measuring the right things right” is a necessary but insufficient precursor to behaviour change in the context of delivering results. The reality is that many organisations measure similar things and govern performance using similar methodologies (think Business Plan Deployment, Annual Objective Setting, Balanced Scorecards, Daily/Weekly/Monthly/Quarterly Performance review cycles). Yet, even the most casual inspection would show that they feel very different and achieve significantly different outcomes.
Metrics provide a trigger for a behaviour
Thanks to decades of research into neuroscience we now have a better understanding of what shapes our behaviours and the conditions necessary to make a change. When presented with things we value (rewards), our brains produce dopamine, a highly addictive chemical. There is a significant body of evidence that indicates that dopamine reward prediction errors i.e. the difference between received and predicted rewards dictate our actions. We produce more dopamine and feel euphoric when we receive more reward than we predict following an action and our brains show depressed activity when we receive less reward than predicted. We learn about which actions are helpful to us and which ones aren’t through a continual comparison between what happened and what we expected to happen. This learning cycle has been key to our survival as humans and with repetition the cycle becomes subconscious and habitual.
In his brilliant book Atomic Habits, James Clear distils this into a 4-stage model of behaviour: Cue – Craving – Response – Reward i.e. we become aware of a cue or trigger in the environment, we (usually subconsciously) decide whether that is important enough to us to take action based on past experience, we take action accordingly and this action results in a level of reward. When that reward is expected we are satisfied yet when we receive less than expected, we look for new ways of closing the gap. Metrics, when viewed through this lens, can only ever provide a trigger for behaviour (Cue) or feedback about the effectiveness of the action taken (Reward).
Thinking drives behaviour
The Results Cone model from Senn-Delaney potentially provides us with more insight. It postulates that our results are related to our actions (behaviour), which are related to our thinking, which is driven by our understanding of the way the world works. If we want to change our results then we must change our behaviour and in order to change our behaviours we must think about our situation differently. This would require us to gain new insights about the way our world works i.e. to change our understanding of the relationships between actions and the results or rewards that we value (cause and effect). Leaders are the most potent catalyst for changing thinking, behaviours and results in an organisation.
Questions change thinking
Performance reviews or dialogues are perfect opportunities to change the thinking way of a person, team or even organisation using metrics as cues. This is particularly so when there is a gap to target performance (actual vs plan). How we respond as leaders to those gaps is a personal choice and, whilst our responses might sometimes range from apathy to accusation, we know that skilled leaders create consequences through enquiry. Through asking rather than telling, effective leaders are able to create conditions of ownership and accountability whilst enabling their teams to develop new insights through engagement.
Questioning in this context is effective when it is authentic, relevant, fuelled by curiosity and, like all coaching, is applied “systematically in the pursuit of desired conditions by utilizing human capabilities in a concerted way”. There are many coaching methodologies and frameworks available today but the most powerful for delivering performance improvement have the following four elements at their core:
1. Consideration of a vision or direction
2. Recognition of the current condition
3. Definition of the next target condition
4. Movement toward that target condition iteratively, uncovering obstacles that need to be worked on
Those leaders who encourage and participate in active experimentation with their teams in a creative, directed and meaningful way on a frequent basis are able to accelerate personal, team and organisational learning through continual comparison between what was expected and what actually happened. When these actions result in better outcomes and rewards, they become habitual based on a new, shared understanding of cause and effect in the specific organisational context.
In considering these things over the past decade or so I have learnt that metrics are a trigger or cue for a behaviour, and, as such, they are necessary but insufficient for behaviour change and performance improvement. The thing that makes the difference to results is not so much that performance reviews or dialogues happen but rather what actually happens when they do. Organisations whose leaders can consistently ask great questions and provoke concerted and directed action develop teams that get superior results. As these teams learn what works for them, their actions become systematic and habitual, which in turn form the basis of an evolving organisational culture.
So, what can leaders practically do to provoke a behavioural change in their team or organisation?
- Provide the right cues for a new type of conversation: “Measure the right things right” – identify the measures that matter most to the organisation and ensure that they are defined in a way that provides a direct link between the measures and the team’s actions.
- Curb your enthusiasm: When there is a gap to target condition, resist the temptation to pass on the benefit of your knowledge and experience. It is likely that you will never have experienced an identical situation before.
- Ask great questions: Aim to establish a common understanding of the vision or “the why”, the current state (to confirm the need to act), a short-term target condition and potential next steps.
- Show a bias for purposeful action: Cause and effect relationships in most organisations are messy, complex, and multi-dimensional. Encourage active experimentation within the team frequently and at short intervals as a countermeasure for “analysis paralysis”.
- Celebrate learning: Well-designed experiments can’t fail; they can only ever provide new learning. When they provide or exceed the expected results the teams will be motivated to continue but when they don’t, most teams will benefit from encouragement to continue since, in the early days, this approach is often an act of faith.
- Be consistent and persistent: Behavioural change and specifically habit formation requires focused, repetitious practice. Be relentless in the pursuit of new and better.
So, when faced with the need to achieve something that you have never achieved or make a difference in your organisation or even beyond, what will you ask?