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By Steve Kelman

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How measurement motivates

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When I teach about the use of performance measurement to improve government performance, one of the central ways I suggest managers and leaders use the metrics is through their ability to motivate employees to work toward a goal.

That challenging goals motivate people to perform better has been supported in hundreds of research studies. An article a number of years ago in the Academy of Management Executive showed that it's tied for the best-established research finding in the human resources literature.

Probably the most dramatic example in the history of organizations of the use of a stretch goal to motivate better organizational performance comes from government – John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech establishing the goal of getting people to the moon and safely back, to be achieved within a decade. When Kennedy made the speech, we had launched an astronaut 115 miles above the Earth. Going to the moon meant sending astronauts 270,000 miles from home, and then bringing them back the same distance.

I have recently been involved in a research project interviewing Obama administration subcabinet agency heads, and the interview questions have included ones about how (if at all) they are using performance measurement to manage their organizations. Overall, the way that these top leaders are personally involved in performance measurement is impressive.

However, very few of the executives have spontaneously mentioned that motivating employees was one way they were using performance measurement to improve organizational performance. Even when asked specifically, many have acknowledged they haven’t done this much.

This is a low-cost way to improve agency performance that appears to be really underutilized.

This week we have a new (sequestration-anticipation diminished!) crop of senior career managers in an executive education program at the Kennedy School. I’ve been teaching them performance measurement this week, and one of the questions I asked the participants was whether any of them had used performance measures to motivate their employees. One response (from a manager at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) was particularly interesting, so I wanted to share it with blog readers.

He said his organization had been using measuring turnaround time on processing a certain element of their workload measured in number of actions in queue – it was at the time, I believe, more than 40,000. But then somebody realized that this number was close to meaningless for frontline employees. So it was decided instead to express the same data in a very different way – how much time did it take for actions in queue to be processed. The answer was that this 40,000 backlog number translated into an average processing time of 4 years.

That was a number people could understand – and, frankly, be shocked (and goaded) by. Suddenly understanding how long the actual wait times were made the staff much more motivated to reduce backlogs, which (with the help of other business process changes) went down significantly over the next few years.

Improvements like this cost no money, only dedication, ingenuity, and – in this case – the realization that a performance metric needs to be expressed in a motivating way as part of an effort to use it to motivate.

In my next blog post I’ll write some more about what the research literature says about using challenging goals to motivate better performance.

Posted on Feb 13, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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Reader comments

Sun, Feb 17, 2013 Amigo

Some complex goals and objectives are difficult to measure; while they may have quantifiable outputs, they may have less tangible outcomes, especially if they are contributing to a relatively small increment of change relative to the larger context. I can think of many land management scenarios that fit this description. That said, I agree that using performance measures in a motivational context rather than strictly as a measure/metric is underutilized.

Fri, Feb 15, 2013

Very simply put, "Say What You Do, Do What You Say, Prove It, Improve It" -- pretty basic when one uses performance metrics.

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