Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Let us not confuse effort with effect, costs with benefits, inputs with outcomes....

How should we measure success?

There is an inherent antagonism in the planning and execution of some of the activities from which organisations try to learn (e.g. projects, mergers, operational deployments, product launches etc).  By this, I mean that they contain relationships such as those between client and contractor, customer and supplier, designer and end-user (perhaps with a manufacturer in-between).

Lessons capture workshops (details of what they are and how to run them can be read here) are a good forum for examining issues from different perspectives and enable a more rounded, balanced picture to appear than if only one side’s view is considered.

Facilitated discussions enable such antagonism to be explored for the purposes of learning how to do things better.  Sometimes the clear distinction of roles and responsibilities enables good governance and clear accountability.  At other times, defensive behaviour may occur which can result in tribalism, wherein each ‘side’ wishes to engage with their ‘opposite number’ only to point the finger, find fault and lay blame as far away from their own doorstep as possible.

When a discussion takes this unfortunate turn, as may happen from time to time, a good facilitator will need their wits about them and will seek to re-create the more collaborative and reflective mood in which the meeting may have started.  This may require some cajoling, some humour, some inquiry into motivation or a combination of all of these.

Sometimes, people representing what they perceive to be ‘opposing’ parties may talk at crossed purposes, such that they are actually not engaging with the issue in the same way – this can either help or hinder inquiry, depending on how it is handled.  Firstly, let us look at how it can hinder learning.

For example, person A may have a view on outcomes, to which person B responds by describing inputs.  This is a frequent phenomenon in what passes for political debate in the UK, from which few parties emerge with much credit.

Let’s take a well-worn topic for discussion – the National Health Service (NHS).

The Opposition of the day (of any party – they all do this, alas) will criticise the outputs of the Government’s health policies thus, “Waiting times, re-infection rates, average response times for ambulances in the NHS are not good enough.”

To which the Government of the day (of any party – they all do this, alas) will respond by listing their health policies’ inputs, “That’s ridiculous – we’ve spent more money than ever before and have increased recruitment of doctors, nurses etc….”

With education, the talk is of falling real standards through grade inflation vs. the efforts of “hard-working pupils and teachers”.  And so on….

At a recent lessons capture meeting, attended by a client and contractor on a large project, discussion turned to communication with one side saying that this had been poorly planned (if at all) and the other side recounting numerous examples of where this was not the case.

In other words, one side questioned the value in acknowledging the planning efforts that had been made because performance was still not good enough. On the other hand, the ‘opposing’ side was concerned that it was not receiving sufficient credit for the efforts it made, whilst not wishing to dwell on where these might nevertheless have fallen short.

Unless someone intervenes and points out that the two sides are talking at crossed purposes (often for their own defensive and selfish reasons), then true inquiry and subsequent learning cannot take place.
So which side of the equation should provide the fertile ground from which we might learn?  Inputs or outputs?  Costs or benefits?  Should we measure effort or effects?  This is where different perspectives can help us in our efforts to learn.

In truth, serious attempts to learn from experience should examine both what an organisation is doing (e.g. inputs, costs, effort etc.) and what it is actually achieving by its efforts (e.g. outputs, benefits, effects etc.).

It is not good enough simply to look at how hard people are working to conclude that their efforts are fruitful, productive or worthwhile.  Nor is it helpful merely to examine the results of such labours without seeking to understand how they have been achieved.

If we are to build a comprehensive and accurate a picture of ‘what happened’, from which we and others can learn, then we need to hear from both sides: customers as well as suppliers, patients as well as doctors, pupils as well as teachers.

Ultimately, however, we should always be prepared to judge efforts by what they actually achieve, rather than presume that hard, fruitless, wasteful, inefficient work is good for its own sake.

Life is too short.

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