Nodding dog Syndrome

I was sat in a coffee shop the other day enjoying a refreshing cuppa,  well on my way to earning my free cup, and reflecting upon what I call nodding dog syndrome.

I just have one more stamp to go and then i get a free drink.

The power to comply with the rules and win the bonus is really strong isn’t it. I know that a free cuppa is not going to change the world, but the principle is sound. Follow these rules and you can get a prize or a bonus.

I am more likely to go back to get the prize than pass over it. After all I have earned it. My behaviour has in a small way been affected by the hook of a free drink. The parallels with the working environment are strong.

Let’s take the all important performance data reporting as an example.

So the pressure is back on to make the numbers fit the plan. We are all well in to the  quarter and probably already starting to panic about what stories we can make up to cover the slippage or the short fall.

Everyone in the chain is keen to make the numbers look good, and come up with a form of words that will fit the highlight report to show that everything is on track. Doubtless some of us will also have to remember to log on and fill in the blanks in the computerised software that pulls our performance into the all important dashboard.

Now where did I put my password again?

I have to confess that  I only log in to the system once a month because I find it tedious, long winded and unhelpful.

The information does not help me or my team to learn and improve in the work, but because everyone is obliged to fill in the blanks, ( it’s in my objectives) audit, and/ or nod through the numbers it has become an inevitable routine to endure once a month.

I can see everyone pawing over the keypad dreaming up fine words, or thinking of who or what they can blame for the problem.

I have asked around and I don’t seem to be in the minority, and yet this is the core system that the organisation uses to monitor performance. I’ve been told  that it provides a good audit trail and a narrative that can be pulled out and fed in to the series of important meetings that are held each month to determine that performance is on track. Critical to business performance or so they think!

The trouble is that few people seem to acknowledge that the data keyed in to the system is manipulated to fit the target. The aim here is to make it look ok for the boss.

Bosses like green flags!

If you make it amber or red you need to write an essay on what has gone wrong and how you will put it right, and the boss will have to fill in lots of boxes and answer lots of difficult questions too. No one wants that do they?

The quarterly one to one review will be a nightmare if anything is not green. So, it’s just easier to make it look ok and nod it through. As long as the boxes are populated on time and are green then everyone is happy.

How can this be the way to do business?

The trouble is that targets  do not help us to understand how effectively we are delivering our service against customer expectation. By this I don’t mean the data from the annual customer poll or the generic customer panel that was run a few months ago.

I am thinking real-time feedback.

The other problem is that by the time the ‘big wigs’ get to view the scorecard the information, even if it was useful, is long out of date –  lagging behind what is really happening at the sharp end.

Making the whole process a massive waste of time. Time that could be spent in the work with front line colleagues understanding how to improve the system to enable a great service to be delivered every time.

I can remember a time when i had to go and explain why I was behind on a key performance indicator. The meeting took place two months after the data had been prepared rendering the cross-examination pointless.

Nevertheless the top brass took turns to ask me very detailed questions about the slippage. There was no interest in learning or improvement, just a determination to find someone to blame.

I tried to show them a control chart which ably demonstrated that the variance was normal, and therefore  to be expected, but  the meeting turned a little sour.

My hard evidence was unwelcome as it blurred the issue. Never let the facts get in the way of a good row over data! We cannot learn anything useful from such an exercise, other than to keep your head down and make the stats go green.

Make it up, do what it takes; find a way to fiddle the numbers.

We are feeding a machine with data like a hungry beast to keep it quiet, not using live data based upon what are customers are asking for in the moment to help us learn and improve at every opportunity.

So, if you want the bonus that you have ‘earned’ be a nodding dog –  better to keep your head down and make the numbers fits the plan at all costs.

Alternatively, you might be curious about using real data to help deliver excellent services, at lower cost, and to improve the mood and engagement within your team.

As a leader the choice is yours.

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Confessions of a public sector director

I have missed my deadlines!

I should have completed all my end of year reviews by the end of last month.

I am late putting the final touches to my business plan, and the performance team wants to know the reasons why my numbers were down for quarter 4.

It seems to be getting harder each time. The last management review removed three of my colleagues and I inherited two extra reports to go with the six that I already have.

The performance objectives that had been set for the new guys have been passed on to me together with the outstanding objectives from two of the managers that did not survive the last jobs cull.

Everyone seems to me to be trying really hard, but according to the latest guidance from HR I need to score three of my team as under performing. This means that they will miss out on a bonus, and I will have to fill in a detailed improvement plan with each of them, which I have to monitor on a monthly basis.

If I fail to do this then my boss will put me on to an improvement plan! I am drowning in paperwork; well I tell a lie some of it is paperless.

We have a new on line web based portal to update our performance metrics on each week.

Honestly I spend more time staring at my computer screen up dating forms and scorecards than I do actually trying to do my job. Is this what I joined this business to do? I talked down the pub with a few of my mates and they mainly seem to be caught in the same trap.

The end of year reviews are all based on the revised competency framework, revised again this year by HR, and also have to link into the business plan targets for the team.

Mine are linked to the team and to my boss, and so on.  It’s a maze. I am not sure that anyone really understands what it all means.

The online guidance and video blogs don’t help much with explaining what we need to know, I just need someone to talk to in person, but the HR team now operate out of a contact centre 400 miles away.

The game at the end of the year is to come up with smart words to show how what we ended up doing looks like it fits with the original plan. I have become pretty skilled at making things look ok.

In truth what we actually do and what we put into the plans are very different, but as long as the right boxes are filled in and we can come up with a sensible reason why we missed target we can usually get away with it.

What a way to run a business!

I sometimes wonder whether everyone is up the same trick? Is the MD also spinning the numbers with the board? He must be! As long as the board is happy then we live to breath another day.

As for this years business plan, well everyone else seems to be rolling forward last years ideas and adding a bit at the margin on performance targets.

You have to do it to survive, but it feels like cloud cuckoo land to me. It feels more and more like a losing streak when betting on the horses. A few of my colleagues have let all this get to them and it has starting to impact upon their home lives.

One of my colleagues had her longstanding partner walk out on her the other week, because she was hardly ever at home. The culture of presenteeism means that we have to be seen to be at work crunching the numbers.

Two of my colleagues are off with stress, and I am not sure that one of them will ever come back. Maybe it’s for the best, at least he will end up with some sort of deal to keep him quite and the company out of the courts!

I have to sit down later this week with one of my reports,  to talk to him about his performance this month.

It’s going to be a difficult conversation you see because he is very good at his job and brings in great results; in fact he is ahead of target. The problem is he is ahead on the wrong target.

Let me explain a bit further – the powers that be have decided that we need to review ten clients a day, and this is the target that we get measured on.  Well Alan has only been hitting around five a day for the last three months, so things are not looking too good for him.

The problem is that he has actually converted more of his reviews in to new business than any other member of the team, but the other team members regular hit their target for reviews.

How can I explain that one to him? The business needs new business to survive, but the target is for numbers of completed reviews. The big bosses don’t seem to realize the implications for the business.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the bonuses they are due at the end of the financial year?

However, I am not sure that it has to be this way. I was reading an interesting article the other day by a chap called John Seddon. In it he talked about that fact that targets always drive the wrong type of behaviour in organisations.

When I reflected upon my own experience I could see what he meant. He also argued that business planning, and annual performance reviews were a waste of time and energy. Well I agree with him there! He argues that such processes are entirely arbitrary and add no value to the business what so ever.

So, why I am finding myself having to doing more and more of this stuff?

The article says that as a manager I need to connect with the work and my team and to understand what my team is about through the eyes of the customer and then to work with them to design and manage the work on the basis of what matters to the customers.

It sounds simple enough; I would love to find the time to have a go.

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog.