Let’s face it. You cannot truly measure employee output, once you are managing people who are not producing or processing widgets per hour – people we call, erroneously, “knowledge workers.” People who are useful and productive because of the relationships they maintain, the external sources they consult to solve problems, and the imagination they bring to the workplace. What measure informs us regarding the appropriate number of relationships, how many external sources they should monitor (how many subscriptions or journals do you provide for them?), and how many hours they should spend free-associating, daydreaming, or otherwise ‘bring creative?’
An extreme focus on process metrics will lead to such things. Since you are hard-pressed to measure outcomes, (and if outcomes occur it is difficult to measure your product/service’s role in the outcome), it becomes easier to ruthlessly measure compliance with desired processes. You read up on what works after attending a leadership conference, then enforce compliance with the steps that ‘get us there.’ If management is about herding employees to compliance, how else do you measure the manager’s worth?
Admit it: If you could, you would hold your employee’s hands, stand over his shoulder, and direct every keystroke. Only then could you be assured the employee’s time was being spent productively.
Yesterday, I watched as a hawk floated on a thermal updraft, expending very little effort as he surveyed his domain below. I marveled at how he was able to float above the high pines, yet maintain an awareness of movement below, sufficient to suit his needs. A short while later, frankly after I had much forgotten the hawk above, I heard a small bird chirping. I don’t speak bird, but this didn’t sound like a song I’d heard before. It was a high, insistent, repeated bark. I looked up to see the hawk, no longer circling effortlessly, but flying figure eight’s in the sky, its legs out straight below it. With its claws wrapped tightly around a small chirping bird.
This went on for some time. The small bird was still technically in flight, and still able to sing its song, although I suspect the lyrics conveyed a new urgency. The small bird was flying higher, likely, than it ever intended, surpassing its parents and peers. Yet, the scene was not about making the bird more efficient, except as food.
Over coffee this morning, I imagined the metaphor which is now obvious – and which may not be working for the reader, to be honest. Controlling the bird’s every movement was critical to the performance metric for the hawk – but only because the bird was not meant to produce anything more than its corpse. Awareness of the complex environment below was made near effortless by harnessing a peculiarity of the environment – thermal updrafts. The hawk adapted its wingspread and became more glider than flier. Deciding to engage in a one-on-one with the small bird cost the hawk, although not as much as it cost the small bird. Engagement with a single actor in the environment expended much more energy, and – not to be lost – denied the hawk any further input regarding the rest of the environment for the last minutes of the small bird’s life.
The metaphor works for me, to a degree. I find myself engaging in repetitive conversations with those who cannot consider any method of management that diverges from predictive control mechanisms. For some, loyalty to hierarchy seems preferred to experimentation or dissent. A leader’s network and practices optimized for a previous work assignment are applied without modification to new positions and teams. It is useful to consider the agendas at work in most conversations – but especially when people insist on compliance to process at the expense of outcome.
That last sentence seems evident to the worker, and represents much water-cooler (a.k.a. Twitter) talk. The chirping on Twitter (and the metaphor takes an unfortunate turn) regarding leadership or management practices often sounds as if people are flying figure eights in the sky – much against their will, and towards an uncertain end.