Big Bang Performance Management

Performance management vendors often say adopting their tools must be done all at once, starting at the top of the organization. They argue that, without executive buy-in, a performance management deployment will not have the mandate needed to succeed. Furthermore, the argument continues, without an enterprise data warehouse and reporting tools deployed to every desktop, employees won’t feel part of the process, less informed decisions will be made, and no real change will happen.

I call this the big-bang theory of performance management. Recently I heard a speaker tell the timeless change management story of the frog in boiling water as justification for a big bang deployment. As the story goes, if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out and live. But a frog placed in water that is slowly heated will sit complacently and boil to death.  According to the speaker, the same principles apply to performance management. Without a shock to the system, stakeholders are unlikely to be goaded into improving performance.

The story made for a captivating keynote but I don’t believe the idea – or the story behind the frog. A frog dropped into boiling water will likely be shocked and killed nearly instantaneously while a slowly-heated frog will probably jump out of the pot when the water becomes too uncomfortably warm. Similarly, employees who are suddenly forced to track performance using KPIs and objectives that they don’t truly understand are likely to circumvent or sabotage the system. (See here for one amusing such story when done company deployed CRM tools.)

In my experience, successful performance management requires change management, especially in those organizations that don’t have a history of linking individual pay to performance. I strongly recommend helping employees understand what the organization wants to accomplish (objectives) before publishing indicators of performance. Better motivated and aligned employees can solve performance problems (Sarasota County provides an example).

In addition, one size doesn’t fit all circumstances. If your corporate color is red, you may not want to use a red stop sign to indicate poor performance. Here are some alternatives.

By starting small, organizations can figure out what works best for them and increase the likelihood of long-term sustained success. Maybe that will keep them out of hot water.


4 Responses to Big Bang Performance Management

  1. Robert E September 24, 2008 at 11:15 pm #

    Was that performance management speaker a character out of Dilbert? I don’t think I like the image of dumping your stakeholders into boiling water to get them to improve performance.

    Typically big bang programs get a “here we go again” attitude from staff that have suffered, multiple times, through similiar projects.

    This is unfortunate, since by the time someone comes along with a workable program that could improve performance, the staff (and most of the other stakeholders) display s strong, stubborn resistance. Indeed, even when the pot is boiling.

  2. Brenda Rae September 27, 2008 at 4:23 am #

    I buy that.
    We see that at work here in our (relatively) small coastal community in Oregon. The city has continually broadcasted “Fixes-to-Come” that never come to fruition and that were never generated by public consensus. For decades, again and again, each new plan broadcasted by local government gets less and less support and the public is apathetic to it.
    Now, a group of us are trying to organize a grass-roots bottom-up approach. I happen to believe in peer pressure at all levels and if we can organize and focus on productive change, city government and city council can come on board to our plan when it looks impolitic not to.
    Make any sense?

  3. Jonathan September 29, 2008 at 6:56 pm #

    Grass roots efforts make a lot of sense, especially in local government. Over the last five years, I’ve spent a lot of time with government organizations (federal, state, and local) helping them change their thinking from activity oriented to impact oriented. From line item budgeting to outcome-based budgeting. This week’s post on the Logic Model is a formalized way to track measures that do this.

    Bob Hanson, CIO of Sarasota County Florida, is a master of this. Here are two previous posts that talk about what he’s done:


  1. Change Management « Manage By Walking Around - February 17, 2010

    […] 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 […]

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