EcDev Journal

Could these Bad Habits be causing your Performance Measurement struggles?

Posted on Monday September 19, 2016
Performance Measurement Process

By Louise Watson, Adura Strategy

Municipalities and economic development commissions are experiencing increasing pressure to show not just what your organizations are doing, but the impact of your work. However, the government sector often struggles to find the meaningful measures you need and can become frustrated with the time and money being wasted trying to develop better measures.

Would you believe me if I told you that your struggles are likely caused by bad habits you don’t even know you have? 

Would you also believe me if I told you that measurement, when done well, is one of the most important tools for driving your organization’s success?  Leaders often write it off as too complicated, inaccessible and perhaps even downright boring; yet it is right there, waiting for you to tap into! Measurement is fundamental to improvement; but to access it, to use it to its fullest potential, you must first become aware of your struggles and what is likely causing them. Let’s take a closer look at these struggles.

Struggle #1:  No Real Buy-in to using performance measures

You know you don’t have buy-in to the true purpose of performance measurement when you observe people treating performance measurement like a bureaucratic hoop, or you hear people say:

  • I’m too busy.
  • I don’t need Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).
  • My work is too complex or unpredictable to measure.
  • We’ve done it before and it didn’t work.
  • The data isn’t good enough.
  • The measure isn’t the right one.
  • I’ve got real work to do.

Sound familiar?

Struggle #2: Seemingly immeasurable goals

You’ll recognize your goals are immeasurable when:

  • You hear people say, “You can’t measure that!” and give up quickly.
  • People discussing the goal can’t agree on what it means. They all come up with different interpretations.
  • The people who wrote the goal can’t remember what it meant when they first wrote it.
  • The people responsible for executing on the goal have to guess or make assumptions about what the goal means.

      Struggle #3: Meaningless Measures

You have what you think are measures, but they are meaningless because they aren’t telling you the information you want and need to know.

You’ll recognize you have this struggle when:

  • You count what’s easy or obvious (ie: number of press releases sent out, number of people attending events) and that’s rarely what’s needed.
  • You have “far away” or lagging measures, which have low relevance to the work you are trying to improve.
  • You set measures as Milestones – like winning an award, or getting a certification like “Employer of the Year”.
  • You just write down all the activities you have been doing.
  • You see vague measure names that no one knows how to quantify, or the formulas aren’t relevant, like “Workforce” or “Population”.


To overcome these struggles, you must first become aware of the bad habits that are the root cause.  What is insidious is that these bad habits are common practice in the field of strategy and performance measurement. Usually, people don’t even realize they have other options. If you want more meaningful measures that give you more leverage and information to reach your targets, then you must stop these bad habits and replace them with deliberate practices that really work.

Let’s look at three of the worst habits, and consider some new solutions to the struggles they are causing.

Bad Habit #1: Judging people with measures

The struggle of people not buying in to performance measurement is often caused by the bad habit of using performance measures to judge people’s performance. This too is common practice, but let’s consider why this is also a bad habit. When people hear that something they are working on is going to be measured, how do they feel? Often, they feel fear, anxiety, anger, and shame; they feel threatened. 

When your organization has this bad habit, you will observe the following:

  • When you discuss performance measures, people get defensive.
  • They make excuses that performance is sabotaged by factors outside of their control.
  • They argue against the choice of measures.
  • They want to measure their effort, not their results.
  • They manipulate the data to make the measure look good.

Want a better habit?  Try this: Use performance measurement as a tool in the hand, not a rod for the back.

  • You have to help people buy into the “why” of performance measurement.
  • You need to reframe performance measures as tools to help people make progress on their strategic plans, help them achieve what is most important, and help them improve their key business processes.
  • We want measures to be a tool in their hands (tools that help them achieve the impact they want), not a rod for their backs (weapons that punish employees for poor performance).

Bad Habit #2: Writing goals with weasel words.

Goals that seem impossible to measure almost always come back to the words that were chosen to write those goals. We refer to these as “weasel words”, also known as corporate speak, jargon or vague-ideals. Examples of this common practice include: accessibility, support, capacity, dynamic, efficient, holistic, innovative, key, leveraged, outcomes, productivity, quality, reliability, sustainable, transparent, unique and well-being.

The problem with weasel words is that they have different meanings to different people, and in different contexts.  They aren’t specific and observable, so they can’t be measured. Have a look at your strategic plan. Do some of your goals include weasel words?

Want a better habit?  Try this: Write goals with words that a 5th-grader can understand.

  • You’re not dumbing-down your strategy by writing it in plain language. In fact, to write what you mean, in the simplest words, without trivializing your goals requires a lot of practice and courage.
  • If your goals can’t paint a unified picture of your intended future in the minds of all the people who should buy in to it, then those goals won’t be achieved, let alone measured in a meaningful way.

      Bad Habit #3: Brainstorming measures.

One of the most common causes of useless and irrelevant performance measures is the way you go about choosing them. The worst culprit is brainstorming. Brainstorming is a creative tool, designed to open up space to consider many and varied ideas; but choosing performance measures isn’t a creative opening-up process. It’s a deliberate, narrowing-down process.


When you brainstorm measures, you end up with:

  • Too many measures and no meaningful way to shortlist them.
  • Measures that don’t strongly align to your goals.
  • Things that aren’t even measures, like activities, data sources or milestones.
  • Measures based only on what you already know.

     Want a better habit?  Try this: Look for evidence, before rushing to measures, because you cannot measure what you cannot observe in the real world.

  • The key to good measures is not considering a wide variety of them, like brainstorming has you do.  It’s designing them based on the best evidence that would convince you that the goal you’re trying to measure is actually being achieved.
  • Real evidence has to be observable. Before you choose measures, you have to describe the evidence you’d see, hear, feel, observe or detect in some physical way.
  • When you know the evidence, you can then quantify it. The most relevant and feasible quantifications of that evidence then become your measure.

To design more meaningful measures, do the opposite of brainstorming.

  • Build a bridge that helps you cross from your strategic goals to a measure that quantifies evidence.
  • Use a consistent, deliberate approach to narrow down the strongest and most feasible measure.

Start right away with replacing these three common bad KPI habits with the better practice.  You may, however, still find that these first steps won’t be enough to overcome all your struggles.  You need to treat performance measurement as a deliberate process and stop wasting time and resources on bad habits.

Here’s an example of how to structure your performance measurement process.  The process is called PuMP® Performance Measure Blueprint, and is a proven methodology used by thousands of organizations in over 45 countries.



In Summary: What are the goals you want to achieve in your strategic plan? Are bad habits standing in your way?

Right now, performance measurement is a struggle because:

  • People are fearful of being judged.
  • People are confused by the vague goals provided to them.
  • You are frustrated by useless measures that deliver no business intelligence.

As boards and elected officials demand more transparency and accountability of the public sector,you have to rise above the KPI struggles and unlearn those bad habits. 

Try out these new practices instead:

  1. Use measurement as a tool to help people to improve processes.
  2. Write goals in everyday language.
  3. Quantify the evidence of those goals, as the measures of the goals’ performance.

To discover more about all eight bad habits, download for free the White Paper: Measures what Matters

Louise Watson helps organizations achieve the future they want by providing hands-on support to create, communicate and execute strategy.  Louise believes that there is no more powerful way to know if you are making progress on achieving your goals than meaningful performance measurement, and that is why she is also Canada’s Licensed Consultant for the PuMP® Performance Measure Blueprint

The PuMP® Blueprint was developed by Stacey Barr, the Performance Measurement Specialist, who lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Reach out to Louise through her website at or email her: