Friday, 30 August 2013

Performance Planning: Why Is It Always Left to Right?

Language and processes matter in the world of performance management. Yet far too often we take the status quo for granted. Take, for example, the phrase "performance management". Numerous organisations are seeking to improve their performance management processes, but are they really focusing on the right issues? Performance management smacks of managing past performance - taking corrective action to ensure we hit our targets. Sure, this is important, but how much effort are organisations putting into performance planning - planning future performance, rather than managing past performance?

Some would argue that shifting your focus from performance management to performance planning is a trivial change of language, but think about the behaviours performance management provokes in your organisation. Often people get very defensive when it comes to performance management. They see the aim of the game as demonstrating to their managers that they are on top of things. They have everything under control. There's nothing to worry about. Bad news can get swept under the carpet and fundamental issues can go unresolved for years.

Contrast this rather defensive behaviour with the idea of performance planning - planning for future performance. No longer is the focus on what has happened and why it has happened. Instead performance discussions focus on where we want to be and how we are going to get there. Sure we'll still need to talk about why we are where we are, so we can understand what to do differently in the future. but the performance conversations become more constructive - no longer are they defensive, reviewing past performance. Instead they focus on the future and where we want to go.

If you start down this route then some interesting issues open up. Many measurement system design methodologies (including ones we have developed) start from the classic vision-mission-objectives approach. The methodologies ask you to think about where you want to be, how you are going to get there and how you'll track your progress. These are all eminently sensible questions, but in essence they are left to right questions. Start with the vision, define the the objectives, specify the targets, elaborate your initiatives and execute. An alternative (or complementary) approach is to plan right to left, or at least to check the validity of your performance plans by working right to left. Right to left planning involves looking at the detail and asking yourself if we deliver all of these plans and initiatives what will they add up to? Will they deliver the results we want? Right to left planning is a great way of checking the validity of your left to right plans. Checking whether you'll achieve the performance you want to.

If you want to check the robust of your approach to performance planning, just ask yourself three simple questions: (i) do we have the balance right between performance management and performance planning - or are our systems tilted either towards reviewing past performance or planning future performance; (ii) do our performance systems provoke open and constructive debate or do they drive defensive and potentially destructive behaviour - have we got the balance right between accountability and creativity in our performance systems; and (iii) how well do we validate our plans once developed - do we do the right to left sense check to establish whether all of the individual projects and activities we are going to undertake will add up to the overall plan we are setting out to achieve? If you are not confident that your performance systems are working well against any of these criteria, maybe it's time to take another look at how you approach performance planning.

Andy Neely