The plays we recommend in our recent Productivity Playbook can help you create a culture of accountability. In that culture, “accountability” should drive the productivity improvements that ensure the business results you are looking for.
Of course, this sounds great in theory, but it can be quite difficult to achieve in a practical sense.
Modern managers understand that today’s employees succeed when they’re focused on the big picture. No one wants to work in a vacuum anymore. Everyone wants to understand how their job helps the company succeed, because everyone wants to make sure their job is safe and that they are valued. You can use this desire to engage and align your people.
Which sounds great, doesn’t it? But when you think about it, you have to wonder how you would go about making it so. The answer to that question is the art of setting up KPIs and having meetings about them that keep your people on track as they attain them.
What we’re seeing in today’s economy is that executives and managers who manage to do this create significant productivity gains. That’s because, as we’re seeing worldwide, a culture of accountability is much more productive.
The Double Play
Today we are going to explore in more detail how KPIs really are the “Key” to unlocking your accountability-productivity double play.
I’ve worked with many businesses all over the world, and while this will come as no surprise to any executive reading this, one of the biggest problems management has is simply communicating with employees in a constructive manner. So often, it seems, a manager’s best efforts at coaching can be misconstrued as unfair criticism or even as a personal attack.
A strong KPI structure changes that completely. In fact, the first step towards productivity is making sure that people are held accountable properly, and KPIs enable you to do that.
How does the KPI structure do this? It simply cuts through noise and emotion like no other tool at your disposal. The KPI measures something in objective reality.
That’s transparency, and sometimes managers have a hard time letting some of their proprietary data go. You might say that, in order to remove emotion from management, leaders have to let go of some of their emotions around data. Often it’s really only emotion that makes you consider certain data private; for the vast majority of the KPIs that will create the kind of accountability we’re discussing, you won’t need to reveal anything that’s actually sensitive.
That said, you may need to reveal more than you do now. You will need to trust your employee to keep their KPI private, perhaps, but only because it has some detailed information in it that you wish to keep from the public.
But once you’ve decided to discuss the data with your employee, the real art of creating a KPI begins. Because, most importantly, all of the variables that contribute to the KPI must be under the control of the person held accountable. It’s like saying to someone, “Well, we’re holding you responsible for how much water comes through this pipe,” and then sitting them next to the valve that lets them change it at will.
With clear up-to-date and open data in a situation like that, there is no skirting around the issues. Everybody knows the truth and is free to focus on what the causes are. When we are struggling, we can focus on what we can do to remove blockages. When we’re on the verge of success, we can offer support and get performance moving in the right direction.
Open transparency around performance can be a cultural shift, but if, as leaders, we are willing to be vulnerable, willing to show that it is safe to ask for help and advice, we will increase the speed at which we can improve our collective success.
Your A-players want to perform, want to succeed, and, most importantly, want to improve personally and collectively. Well-designed KPIs, which require some transparency, help them accomplish this.
But only if they’re discussed properly, which brings us to meetings about KPIs. Things are quite different in a meeting like this. Think about meeting with a low-level employee. Often, if things are going poorly in their department, you end up discussing irrelevancies like the punches on their time card or some other minor detail that doesn’t really relate to your business. It can end badly. In the same way, you might talk to a high-level employee and end up talking about everything from theories to politics to understand the department’s poor performance – equally bad and irrelevant.
A well-designed KPI cuts through all that. It creates an environment where you can safely hold difficult discussions and freely ask challenging questions. Why? Because the KPI simply reports objective reality. You’re both trying to make that reality move. When it doesn’t, you both want to figure out why – so you can change it. When it does, you both want to figure out why – so you can do it over and over.
That discussion doesn’t threaten your employee. It’s not about their behavior or anything else abstract. It’s about reality.
Your A-players are just as alarmed or just as satisfied as you are. They want the same thing you do. They understand the big picture just like you do. Only, their job is about this one KPI. If you team up with your employee to make the KPI move the way you want it to, you change everything. You change their job, and their perception of their job. You change their relationship to their company, and to you. Nothing is personal. It’s all about being effective.
Because of this, we’ve found that KPIs create a sense of psychological safety. Trivialities drop away, and the big picture becomes the focus. In many ways, this psychological safety is what increases productivity.
A recent article in HBR confirmed how psychological safety improves learning and performance outcomes. We see evidence of this with many of our clients. Harvard professor of management Amy Edmondson showed that safety is created when leaders are inclusive, humble and encourage their staff to speak up or ask for help.
Obviously, you can’t do that once a quarter. Someone controlling a KPI needs to meet with you much more often, mostly because they either need to be acknowledged for their success, or they need to know that you’re there to help them solve their problems. If you take the time to share success, then you can take what’s working for one employee and apply it to another. When things aren’t perfect, offering support to an A-player not only ups her game, it can produce just the solution you need – but couldn’t think of yourself.
Frequent meetings like that can take your business to a whole new level. A frequent rhythm smokes out the issues and doesn’t allow blockages to become embedded. Instead, you address and resolve problems early.
That’s the way we do it at Results.com. In our daily huddle, we know our problems have nowhere to hide, and that not only are we are accountable for revealing them, but surprises are not acceptable. We know that in our weekly meeting we will relentlessly be reviewing our KPIs and how they are progressing.
This may sound like a tough regime, and we certainly challenge ourselves hard. But the meetings themselves, or this process of intense discussion, are remarkably comfortable.
Sticking to the problem-solving side, having everything on the table eliminates most fear. The questions our managers ask are consistent. “What is going on here,” they want to know, and they help focus others by following that with, “What is your number one priority to move forward this week?” We know what is expected and we know that the other A-players on our team want to set the whole company up for success.
In this environment, the laser focus created by a great Key Performance Indicator structure is really is like handing your team the keys to unlock the productivity gains trapped in your business. Your employees will find them, if you let them.
Which brings us to the celebration part of these meetings. When no one lives in fear, everyone lives in a constant state of empowerment. When everyone understands the big picture, everyone is driven to succeed. In that culture, everyone wants to be an A-player. Everyone wants to help everyone else so that, when the time comes, they will get the help they need.
Your people will find solutions for you because they want to. That’s how a modern manager creates a culture of accountability.