A Sustainable Performance Lesson from the Grinch

Grinch's smileWith the arrival of the holiday season comes the inevitable onslaught of television classics, including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Home Alone”. While each are good movies in their own right, I wonder if the latter became a holiday staple largely based on the sheer number of times it was repeated in the first few years after it came out. Familiarity breeds comfort.

As often happens, this musing collided with my day job such that I started extrapolating to performance management. After they roll out a strategic objective, organizations measure increased performance largely because management has signaled what is important to them. Employees focus on improving the objective… at least for a while.

My experience shows this increased performance is often a short-term blip with much of the benefits subsiding after attention wanders elsewhere. While there are many culprits, I believe the main issue is that the initiatives created to improve performance are not necessarily the same ones required to sustain performance. Sustainable performance improvement requires a fundamental change in behavior or environment.

For fun, we can draw a comparison to the difference between Scrooge and the Grinch. In both stories, the main character starts out hating Christmas and seemingly all people. Both end up as good guys but they get there in completely different ways. Scrooge is essentially scared straight by the Ghost of Christmas Future while the Grinch is overcome with emotion by the Whos’ ability to focus on the spirit of the holiday rather than the material trappings.

As a clue his changed performance might be sustainable, we’re told that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. Talk about a literal change of heart! On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Scrooge has fundamentally changed. It’s entirely possible Scrooge will go back to his old ways as soon as the shock wears off.

One conclusion is that carrots work better than sticks in truly changing behavior. But another possibility is that we should focus our improvement initiatives less on just closing the gap in performance (turning red to green) and more on the root cause of the issue. Unfortunately, this is at odds with many consultants who would be financially better off by coming back every year and re-scaring Scrooge into acting charitably.

Perhaps they are the true Grinches.

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8 Responses to A Sustainable Performance Lesson from the Grinch

  1. Gary Cokins December 19, 2007 at 6:05 pm #

    Jonathan,

    I like your “Christmas story” and agree with you that Performance Management is so much broader than just financial reporting, better budgeting and dashboards. Your key word was “sustainable” continuing improvement. PM must include root cause analysis and more attention to strategic projects and initiatives … including their mileston KPIs. My simple description is PM is not just monitoring the dasboard dials but rather MOVING the dials.

    Gary Cokins, SAS

  2. Jonathan December 19, 2007 at 11:13 pm #

    Gary,

    Thanks for the feedback. We agree in many ways. I might add that sometimes you don’t even need the dials to improve and sustain performance. Here’s an example from Sarasota Florida http://alignment.wordpress.com/2007/05/13/pm-saves-lives/

    Cheers

  3. Anita Gibbings December 20, 2007 at 3:44 pm #

    Jonathan,

    I just discouvered your blogs, here and have been enjoying reading through some of your previous posts. I like the analogy you drew and I think that perhaps Scrooge & the Grinch’s behaviour improved (at least in the short term as you pointed out) because they were given some transparency at an individual level of how their behaviour impacted society as whole. They were more accountable for their actions. The problem I see with getting sustainable performance management is getting this level of accountability and transparency down low enough in the organization that each individual essentialy has a dashboard and scorecard – but only where they can actual move the dials as Gary says above. Individuals tend to do as they are rewarded for and too often this isn’t aligned in any way with the overall strategic objectives of the company.

  4. jaimefarinos December 17, 2014 at 3:51 pm #

    Great post! Also very well timed 🙂 I embrace managing performance through behaviors and using these as a reference of where do we want to be. The right behaviors, happening very often, will increase performance much better than other traditional methods. A carrot (and even worse a stick) won’t take you as far.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] I’ve previously argued that the sudden change of big bang performance management won’t shock the proverbial frog into jumping out of the pot.  Instead, sustainable performance improvements coming from changing behaviors and Grinch-like heart growth. […]

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