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What Performance Management Is and Is Not

Africa Studio/

At a recent academic conference a scholar was explaining his research in which he sought to determine whether performance management worked—whether it improved performance. He took a traditional approach (called “meta-analysis” by the cognoscenti) examining all of the different reports that analyzed this question seeking to draw conclusions from this entire collection of research.

Unfortunately, he had one problem.  How to decide what counted as “performance management.” After all, many of the reports he analyzed offered no specific definition of “performance management.” Many simply used this two-word phrase as if its meaning was simple and obvious.

Moreover, many of these reports used the phrase “performance management” when all anyone was doing was collecting some data that might (or might not) be related to performance—to some public purpose that the organization might (or might not) be trying to achieve.

No actual management was involved. No managers were doing any managing. They had some data. But how they were using their data was unclear. They might have been doing nothing more than storing them in a database. Maybe they were also posting their data on a website.

Clearly, however, not all of the organizations that asserted they were doing “performance management” had developed a strategy for focusing staff and collaborators on the task of improving performance—on producing some specific results.

This revelation is not surprising. Long ago, I learned that many public officials—and many academics too—use the phrases “performance management” and “performance measurement” interchangeably, as if they are the same thing.

It’s time to stop letting them off the hook. It’s time to clarify what performance management is and what performance management is not.

1. Performance management requires the members of the leadership team of a jurisdiction, agency, or collaborative to focus their efforts on achieving a specific public purpose. The leadership team of the agency, jurisdiction, or collaborative is engaged in performance management only if it articulates this purpose clearly, publicly and vocally.

This purpose might be to reduce crime. It might be to help children grow up to be responsible citizens and productive employees. It might be to prepare a nation to cope effectively the next time a virulent virus jumps from an animal to a human. Whatever their purpose is, the managers have to make it clear to their staff, to their collaborators and to citizens.

2. Performance management requires the leadership team to focus everyone on the task of eliminating or mitigating one of the important performance deficits that is preventing them from achieving this purpose.

3. Performance management requires the leadership team to define a “performance target”—a specific result to be produced by a specific date that, when achieved, will eliminate (or at least mitigate) this key performance deficit.

4. Performance management requires the leadership team to develop a performance strategy that will engage employees, collaborators and citizens in helping to achieve this target.

5. Performance management requires the leadership team to track, regularly and frequently, data that reveal its progress toward achieving this target. (If the leadership team has no target for eliminating a performance deficit, how does it know what data to collect—what to measure?)

6. Performance management requires the leadership team and staff to analyze these data to determine how much progress they are making toward achieving their target.

7. Performance management requires the leadership team to learn from these data—to use its analysis of its data to make adjustments (or drastic revisions) to their strategy.

8. “Performance management” requires the leadership team—after it has achieved its target—to select another performance deficit and create another target, plus another strategy for achieving this new target. In doing so, the leadership team will focus everyone on ratcheting up the achievement of their public purpose.

Real performance management requires active leadership. It is not a mere data-collecting chore that can be delegated to a few measurement wonks. If a leadership team is truly doing performance management, it needs to be actively engaged in performance leadership.

Perhaps you remember what Humpty Dumpty told Alice in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

Claiming that mere performance measurement is actually performance management is nothing more than Humpty Dumpty management.

Robert D. Behn, a lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, chairs the executive education program Driving Government Performance: Leadership Strategies that Produce Results. His book, The PerformanceStat Potential, was recently published by Brookings.

Copyright 2014 Robert D. Behn

(Image via Africa Studio/

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