Lead Out of Control

The most common question I get regarding performance-based metrics is, “what should we be counting?”  Is it visits?  moves?  phone calls?  dollars raised? number of proposals submitted?  etc.  And while I can make a well-reasoned argument as to why a particular set of metrics will be more powerful in predicting success than another, I can also assure you that no particular set of quantifiable metrics is the best predictor of effectiveness and success.

What am I talking about?  It’s simple.  I’ve been a champion of performance-based metrics for almost a decade now.  When done well, they work.  And that’s the key phrase, “when done well.”  The one thing I can say for certain is that if, as a leader, you place too much emphasis on them you will get enhanced results.   But you won’t get the best results.

To get the best possible results from a development team, you have to be a little “out of control.”  Sometime back I came across a wonderful essay entitled, “Why Good Spreadsheets Make Bad Strategies,” by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.   In this essay, Dean Martin (I just had to type it that way!)  discusses the fact that, as humans, we regularly try to control our work, our production, and our organizations.  Quantifiable measurements, like those on spreadsheets, provide us with the illusion of control.  And we bite on it every time.  We count the number of dollars committed, we count how many visits we’ve secured, and we count how many proposals we have submitted.  We count all kinds of stuff and, in many cases, stuff that doesn’t even matter!

So, Dean Martin stresses the need for a qualitative assessment to come alongside quantifiable assessments.  It is not enough to simply know the numbers.  We must have a much better understanding of what the numbers mean and how those meanings impact human behavior.  Speaking of the smart people and quantifiable metrics that completely missed the economic collapse of the last 2 years, he writes,

The fundamental shortcoming is that all of these scientific methods depended entirely on quantities to produce the answers they were meant to generate. They were all blissfully ignorant of qualities (emphasis added). My colleague Hilary Austen, who is writing a fantastic book on the importance of artistry, describes the difference between qualities and quantities in the latest draft:

Qualities cannot be objectively measured, as a quantity like temperature can be measured with a thermometer. We can count the number of people in a room, but that tells us little about the mood — upbeat, flat, intense, contentious — of the group’s interaction.

And herein lies the secret to outstanding development team effectiveness.  Yes, you need to measure the important quantifiable process and outcome variables.  But that is not enough, nor should it be the primary focus of development leadership.

Instead, development leaders should focus more time and energy on the qualitative aspects of our work.  Think and behave more like artists and artisans.  Like designers.  In short, use quantifiable metrics to establish expectations, but give up the illusion of control and meaningfully engage your staff. Engage them at all levels in donor strategy, hiring, annual fund planning, planned giving program communications, etc.

Ask your staff questions about their work.  Listen to their answers.  Grow them.  Let them run the show.  Encourage them to own their work.  Be out of control and let them be more in control.

The truth is this:  We don’t control much beyond our own behavior – and sometimes we wonder if we really control that.  Yes, expectations and goals need to be established and quantifiable metrics are important.  But the only way to achieve long-term excellence is by letting go of the illusion of control and empowering your colleagues to be the best possible development professionals they can be.


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