How should we measure out people?

We all know the old adage:

What get’s measured is what get’s done.

However, if you constrain your measurement of your employees’ performance to counting the goals they score, then you’re doing most of your team a disservice. While their hand might not have been the last to touch the ball before it landed in the goal, supporting players often make vital contributions. If there was no one there to pass the ball to the player in front of the goal, then there would never have been a goal.

Most sports take this into account and include “assists” (passes that help another player score) in the statistics they collect. This broader approach allows us to measure individuals based on their main roll on the playing field: number of goals scored for a shooter, number of assists for those on the wing, number of deflected shots for a defender, and so on. Unfortunately, this too has it’s own problems.

What is the best option for someone playing on the wing, someone who finds themselves in possession of the ball, in front of the opposition’s goal, and with none of the opposing team anywhere near them? Should they take a shot at goal? Or should they wait for a shooter to catch up, potentially along with players from the opposing team, and pass the ball to the shooter? Intuition tell us they should do the former: take the easy shot and score the goal. A bird in the hand is better than one in bush. Logic, however, tells the wing to wait for the shooter: pass the ball and count the assist. While taking the shot might have a higher chance of scoring a goal (and potential winning the game), in the longer term the wing is thinking about their career, and their future as a wing is determined by their ability to collect assists, not goals. Sometimes the metrics we put in place encourage undesirable behaviours.

Simple, single dimensional measures are attractive as they seem to allow us to quantify the world, and our team’s performance. The problem is that the world isn’t quite so simple. Our measures often set individual interests against those of the team. Rather than forming a team which is working together toward a common goal, we’ve created created a group of individuals who’s personal goals can often be in conflict with the team’s best interests.

What we really want to measure is how effective each team member’s contribution was. Given the opportunities presented to them, did they make the best, most effective, use of them? Was waiting for the shooter and then taking the assist the most effective thing they could do for the team? This depends on the context of the assist. If the shooter – a more accurate player – was only a couple of steps behind, with the competition still somewhere at the other end of the court, then yes, it probably was. The shooter has a better chance of scoring and the opposition was is not a factor. If shooter arrives with the opposition or, even worse, after them, then no, the wing should take the shoot. Even though the shooter is more accurate, the confusion caused by the opposing team means that the shooter will have a lower chance of success when surrounded by the opposition, than the would wing standing there on their own.

Business works the same way. One of the dirty secrets of performance reviews is that they often reward the employees who manage to attach themselves to the most successful project or department, not the ones who make the best use of the opportunities presented to the business. For example, if you managed to work your way into SAP supply chain projects in the mid to late nineties, you could expect a nice pay rise and promotion at each performance review. The market was booming and each project you moved to would be bigger and better than the last, allowing you to consistently deliver over your performance targets. It’s not that you were performing better than any of your peers in other areas, it’s just that your domain grew more than theirs. We see a similar thing in the share market, where many companies like to pat themselves on the back for a good year, when in reality they didn’t do that well compared to the rest of the market.

What we’re looking for is not the player with the highest statistics, the player with the most goals or assists. We want the most effective player, the one who can create the greatest advantage of the opportunities presented too them, using their own skills and those of the people around them. Rather than promote the people who float up with a rising market, we need to find those people who are more effective than their peers, and put them in a position where they can lift the performance of the entire business. The people who can deliver outlier performance.

Posted under: Enterprise 2.0

One comment

  • Leland on 2011-06-09 at 2:07 am said:

    I would just like to add, for any readers interested in following up with Peter’s main points here, a great reading resource would be “Peopleware”. It very strongly supports the position that was taken here .

    Thanks for the article Peter. 🙂

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