Driving Accountability Through Performance Metrics: A White Paper

Assigning responsibility for a strategic change or initiative is straightforward for most organizations. Whether the assignment is made by the “tag your it” approach or a more thoughtful “who is best suited to lead this effort” approach, holding someone accountable for success of the change/initiative has shown to be a quite vexing. This problem is exacerbated when multiple people or organizations are sharing the responsibility as is typical on large scale initiatives or strategic changes.

How can leaders hold people responsible for results and outcomes to which they have been assigned? How can leaders avoid the typical excuses often expressed including: “it is not my responsibility” or “it was their fault” or “it was really outside of my control”? How can staff and employees engaged in a strategic initiative feel that they are committed and accountable? How can multiple players agree on shared goals and objectives, all working in concert to drive results? How can accountability transcend leadership and staff changes in a low unemployment and high-demand market cycle?

Lessons Learned
Working with commercial and public services organizations around the globe I have found that successful leaders focus on driving accountability throughout the performance management cycle from development, execution, and evaluation using a few leading practices.

Accountability is driven by and grounded in an organization’s strategy. Leading practices include:

  • Developing AND communicating the strategy to all those effected and involved in its execution providing ample opportunity for vetting and discussion,
  • Directly specifying one or more performance measures AND targets for each goal and objective constituting the strategy,
  • Identifying key actions or initiatives to fulfill each objective and make progress toward goal achievement, and
  • Working collaboratively to assign responsibility for each action leveraging a RACI model – Responsible, Authority, Consult, and Inform – taking care to ensure that people are not given responsibility without authority for making decisions, responsibility without the expertise to execute the activity or responsibility without resources to do the work. Work consensus to forge agreements and leverage “command and control” management levers as needed.

Accountability is further driven down through an organization to teams or across multiple organizations through a cascading of the objectives and related performance measures. Leading practices include:

  • Focus on the organization’s contribution to the achievement of the performance measure rather than the entire target as it is rare that on large initiative a single organization is totally responsible for a single measure or metric,
  •  Likewise, focus on individual’s (or team’s) contribution to the performance metric, providing a clear line of sight from corporate strategy all the way down to the individual level (ideal, otherwise to a unit level),
  •  Leverage protocols for personnel performance measurement, ideally a performance-based system,
  •  Work with each individual to provide clarity and understanding of the goals, objectives, and performance measures to which they will be held accountable,
  • Provide training, guidance and support to first-line supervisors to which questions are most often directed, and
  • Take care to not hold people or organizations accountable for things outside of their direct control.

Defining measures and collecting data to track the measure to targets is perhaps the thorniest of issues in establishing and maintaining accountability. Successful leaders have avoided the “perfection trap” by defining measures that are a combination of objective, hard metrics and subjective, softer means of evaluating progress. Proxy data or derived data can be used for measures where no direct data is available or the cost of collecting/obtaining the data is prohibitive. Care must also be taken to avoid organizations or individuals to “game” the measurement system.

Accountability is reinforced during execution by a few simple, but powerful principles:

  • Make results visible to all – individuals and organizations can only implement a strategy when they can clearly see their contribution to its achievement,
  • Provide feedback with real data on a timely basis – to enhance rapid course correction,
  • Leverage “dash boarding” tools with, ideally, drill down capability – but don’t focus on the technology, focus on the information and what it tells management, and
  • Carve out management time to review the performance data, identify areas requiring action or follow-up, and directly engage with those being held accountable for ideas to improve performance – give them an opportunity to influence the outcome for which they are responsible.

Execution is where accountability tends to suffer the most. Research has shown that leadership simply spends far too little time reviewing and leveraging their management teams to actively manage the performance of those being held accountable. Typically, it is at year-end when it is too late to have an impact on an individual’s or organization’s performance. Successful leaders conduct monthly reviews of performance data and take appropriate action – whether convening other organizational partners to address common goals and measures or working internally to guide their own performance.

Fairly evaluating performance is the last component of driving accountability. There are two forms of evaluation that successful leaders employ. The first is to have “management teeth” in the actual annual performance review process and not allowing poor performance to be unfairly “inflated” to a higher rating or go otherwise go unnoticed with little corrective feedback for the next performance period. The
second is to evaluate the performance measures themselves. Are the measures working for us or not? Is the data valid and meaningful? Do we need different measures of success? Were the targets too high, low or unrealistic? Were there too many conflicts or overlaps? Are we measuring the right things? Can we leverage leading indicators earlier in the process to improve performance? Are we measuring the right things in the right way? These are all good questions that successful leaders ask themselves at least annually. The answers will lead to thoughtful improvements in the measurements and perhaps overall strategy. Both forms of evaluation create a greater opportunity to drive accountability at the individual, team, and organizational level.

Accountability can only be driven by a solid performance management framework inclusive of strategy, execution and evaluation. Performance measurement is about management. It has been said that “one cannot manage what one cannot measure”. Likewise, “what is measured gets done”. Successful leaders lead change or other strategic initiatives by developing measures tied directly to goals and objectives, create clear lines of sight from the corporate level down to the individual, provide timely visibility of performance using dashboards, and put the time in required to actively manage to the accountability sought. Accountability is a contact sport.

James Stockmal (SK Partners)