Be careful what you wish for

Hand drawn five bar gates and stopwatch

If you don’t measure it you can’t improve it.

That was what a previous senior manager of mine used to say. I was working in a customer service centre and part of my role was to collate the measurements that were used to evaluate the team’s performance.

The team was split in two: One half took incoming phone calls, the other half dealt with written  communication. This was in the mid 1990’s and written meant paper. Email was just starting to become adopted internally and the workflow used a fledgling digital system. Customer’s letters would be scanned automatically and those scans added to a queue to be dealt with in turn.

That queue also had requests from the phone team that were deemed complex and needed escalating as the paperwork team was generally more senior. 

The phone team were measured for total number of calls taken and the average duration of call.

So the aim was to take as many calls as possible and to keep them short.

Calls came in via an automated switchboard and would be non stop unless you clicked DND (Do Not Disturb). This was a feature of the phones and it prevented the next call coming through. It was measured but did not have the same weighing as call number or duration.

So to meet individual targets, many of the call team would make notes (pen and paper) during the call, press DND, type the request and add it to the queue for the paperwork team.

So rather than dealing with the majority of caller requests in the moment, a significant volume were added to the queue for the other half of the team. The phone team looked good because call volumes were high and duration was short. Yet two people were involved for a task that could have been completed within the duration of a call.

All because the measurements encouraged gaming the system.

So when you want to know the performance of your team be careful what you ask for.

Focusing on certain Key Performance Indicators rather than gaining a broader understanding can inadvertently lead to encouraging behaviours that reduce your overall effectiveness.

For further reading about how using rewards may actually lower output see

Problems are great

Lightbulb and ideas cloud

Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.

I’m not a fan of that much used phrase.

From a leadership perspective, the start is a blocker – Don’t come to me.

Then it goes on to explain that if you are in need of help I am not interested. I only want to know about things once you have worked out how to fix them.

Why? So that I can make the final decision only when you’ve done all the hard work?

The spirit of the phrase is meant to empower, to encourage reflection so that the request becomes one where the risk has identified and a plan been created. That’s great when it is within normal boundaries and presents no additional side effects. Not so much a problem as simply business as usual.

What makes problems so good?

They tell us that we are looking forward. Actively seeking a way of doing things better.

Problems also indicate that people are talking.

And here’s the really delicate bit. By discussing problems earlier you get the combined input of a wider range of people. Note, that doesn’t mean relinquishing responsibility nor does it mean showing weakness.

Instead, it prevents two significant risks:

Of making decisions without key pieces of information. We frequently have to make decisions without all the information otherwise there would be no case to deal with ambiguity. If you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done. However we may not realise the significance of what we are proposing without gaining outside view. Anyone who has worked in software development will be familiar with how easily a seemingly small change in one area of a project can have huge repercussions in another.

It also gives an opportunity to break the pattern of “we’ve always done it this way.” If you ask the same people you will tend to get the same advice so consider going outside your usual circle of contacts. That might mean a coach or consultant who specialises in this topic.

Finally, sharing problems is good for you. We sometimes get things out of proportion, get blinded by our own desire to be unshakeable that when we do get stuck we don’t know how to deal with it. Our vision drops, our creativity suffers and that small glitch becomes all consuming.

So keep talking to me.