To KPI Or Not To KPI?

To KPI Or Not To KPI?

03 Feb 11:00 by Alan Jarque


Key Performance Indicators, or KPIs for short, remain the performance management tool of choice for the 21st century. They offer a theoretically objective snapshot of an individual’s activity, and give any manager precious insights into where improvements can be made. They are easily standardised across a wide team of people, and in the intangible realm of human behaviour, they give a precious “number” to cling onto.

They are also used as a big stick to beat weary staff into submission.

We all know the threat of a number hanging over us. Whether it is a sales target, a revenue goal or an activity tracker, and the start of every day, these numbers are not far from our thoughts. Rather than think “how could I do my best today?” we think “how can I hit my target today?”

This can make a big difference to someone’s performance. Let me explain why. In my view, when you are fixated on a certain target, you judge whether your activity is going to contribute to that target. On the whole, this is positive, but sometimes it is those vital (non-essential) tangents that open up whole realms of possibility. Doing something that might not seem “mission critical” for 15 minutes might give you the insight to achieve your goal twice as quickly.

So, in order to achieve your target, sometimes it makes sense to remove the KPI from the front of your mind and place it gently to the side somewhere. You know what you should be doing, you know how to get there, but you don’t need this number screaming at you every minute of your day. Psychologically, that simply isn’t healthy.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the best businesses use KPIs for management of personal goals rather than as a management tool. It is undoubtedly useful to measure where you are in relation to your goal, and to use that “number” as your personal motivation as and when you choose to access it. You may have placed it gently to one side, but when the going gets tough, it is useful to remind yourself every now and again.

When KPIs are used as a management tool, they are more often than not cascaded down from a certain business requirement (i.e. we have a £1m sales target, we have ten sales people, therefore their targets are £100k each). This approach rarely reflects the ability and confidence levels of the employees – some may coast to their targets, and some may struggle. For those who are “growing” into their careers, this immense pressure often gets in the way of learning some of the key lessons. A better approach, therefore, may be to have personalised targets and objectives for each employee.

We all have our own personal goals – for every year, month, week and day of our lives. You probably have a plan in your head of what you are about to do next (after “liking” this article, of course!). When KPIs come from an internal place of “I want to push myself to do better”, they are useful self-management tools to help us achieve our dreams. When they come from an aggressive management team, they often send us into our shells thinking “how on earth am I going to do that?”

I know which mind-set I would rather adopt.