Life as a car

My friend Katie Joy shared this great metaphor with me at a family Christmas gathering. Any mangling that may have occurred in the re-telling is entirely my fault.

Life is a like a car hurtling along.

When I was young I used to sit right up the front, on the bumper, totally exposed to all the bugs and grit flying my way, with no control at all over the steering wheel.

When I was a teenager, I used to sit on the bonnet. Up there I was slightly protected from the grit, but it used to get very hot, and I still had no control over the car’s direction.

When I became an adult, I moved into the driving seat for the first time. Finally I was able to steer the car where I wanted to go.

As I grow older, will I stay in the driver’s seat or, at some point, will I move to the back seat, becoming a comfortable passenger in my own life?

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Measurement 101

I love measuring things.

Maybe it’s because I was deprived of good quantitative data during my formative years studying a liberal arts degree.

Or maybe it’s because the first thing I ever seriously tried to measure was my own work performance.

I was designing a marketing campaign and I wanted to find a way to measure whether my campaign was working. After all, how else could I possibly know if I was doing a good job? And if I didn’t know that, how could I possibly improve?

It seemed so self-evident, I naively assumed that was how business worked and everyone would think the same way. You’re probably not surprised to learn this initial enthusiasm was challenged very quickly as I ran headlong into all sorts of difficulties.

Maintaining the passion to navigate through these difficulties can teach a lot about obstacles and limitations facing measurement in complex organisations, and how to do it well.

People resist measurement

People present the main obstacle to organisational measurement. Sometimes they actively go out of their way to thwart, subvert or manipulate measurement systems for perceived protection or personal gain. Sometimes people are just hard to measure because they’re so inherently complex and changeable.

One of the lessons that emerged from my very earliest experiments was how much people tended to view the whole idea of measurement with fear and suspicion. The most common question, fired from beneath knitted brows, was, “Why do you want to do that?”

Even if the thing I was trying to measure bore no direct relation to the person I was speaking to, they were still quite likely to perceive my efforts as setting a dangerous precedent, best nipped in the bud.

How to deal with it
One of the many reasons people behave this way is because measurement is almost always a precursor to some sort of change. There’s a huge amount written about why people resist change, and what to do about that. So let’s say that’s adequately covered elsewhere, and park it as a subject for future posts.

Where are you going with all that data?

Organisations struggling with measurement are often focusing at the wrong end, on the data collection itself. This can result in complex, unwieldy processes to amass piles of very prescriptively defined data that aren’t being used for anything very important.

These piles of data are often nurtured and protected from disturbance or exploitation by gate keepers. Like sphinxes, these guardians seek to confuse the unwary and will gleefully waste hours discussing statistical validity, non-random samples, longitudinal issues, and other ‘statistrivia’, to scare people away from using the data pile to make decisions.

This sort of behaviour gives measurement a bad name and, as indicated above, people often feel threatened by the whole concept of measurement anyway, so this makes it all too convenient to just forget about the whole thing and go back to comfortable fumbling around in the dark.

How to deal with it
It’s usually better to start at the other end: what are we trying to achieve? Then see if any metrics already captured in the financials, or HR, or IT systems are pointing in the right direction to enable better decision making. When dealing with gate keepers, I’ve tried garlic and crucifixes, with limited success – let me know if you have a better solution.

Rules of thumb for measurement

  1. There is no such thing as 100% certainty.
  2. Human beings always make decisions based on imperfect or incomplete data – so get used to it.
  3. Some data is better than no data.
  4. Approximate data is better than no data.
  5. The quality of the decision making process is more important than making sure the data is accurate to 15 decimal places.
  6. It’s easier, faster and cheaper to use data you already have than to create a new measurement system.
  7. Combine measures of quantity with measures of quality, to make sure you know what you’re measuring.
IT service desk flowchart

This is why 'closed jobs' on its own is an inadequate measure of IT service desk performance

This last point may seem obvious, but it’s not. For example, lots of IT service desks use the number of jobs closed as a measure of performance. This would be great if ‘closed job’ = ‘problem solved’ = ‘satisfied customer’.

But this is not true, because the IT service desk staff usually determine when a job is closed, not the customer. So this provides an incentive for staff to close off all jobs as fast as possible, even though the problem isn’t solved.

When the customer complains, the service desk just opens another job, the cycle repeats, and the service desk staff look good, because they’re smashing the ‘closed jobs’ KPI.

So measuring quantity by itself is not enough. You also need an accompanying measure of quality to understand what’s actually being measured.

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The Balanced Scorecard

The Balanced Scorecard (BSC), created by Arthur Schneiderman and popularised by Kaplan & Norton, is a commonly used framework for setting organisational performance measures along four dimensions:

  1. How do customers see us?
  2. What internal processes must we excel at?
  3. How can we continue to improve and create value?
  4. How do we look to shareholders?
Balanced scorecard

The Balanced Scorecard links performance measures (after Kaplan & Norton, 1992)

Potential limitations of the Balanced Scorecard

It’s always good idea to forge strong connections between strategy and measurement, and the BSC can be a great tool when used well, but it’s not foolproof. I’ve worked in or with a number of organisations that tried to use the BSC with varying degrees of success.

For example, one organisation used contract fulfillment as a customer satisfaction indicator, and then couldn’t understand why its customers complained all the time. (If you’re not sure why this was a mistake, answer this – last time you had to pull out a contract and read the small print, was that because you were happy with the service you were receiving?)

This sort of basic misinterpretation of the data created a false sense of security by concealing rather than revealing the real issues within an ailing business.

If used carelessly, the Balanced Scorecard can also foster too much balance. We can all think of organisations that try to do a little bit of everything, and excel at nothing. This often signals a lack of direction.

How to obtain results from the Balanced Scorecard

Strategy is essentially about aligning resources and competencies inside the business with trends in the external business environment. Therefore, to be effective, goals and measures in the BSC must promote positive behaviours inside the business which directly connect with what’s happening outside the business.

When done well, the BSC can help management and staff step outside their normal boundaries and view the business from four different angles, which can be very helpful.

For example, to really understand ‘how do we look to our customers’ the business has to understand how its customers make decisions, what sort of cues customers use to make relative judgments between competing offers, what factors encourage those customers to stick with one offering, or switch to something else, and then use those cues to measure the health of the business.

That’s a potentially powerful way to generate new insights.

Send me an email, if this is something you’d like to implement in your organisation.

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Mental health part four – ideas


Morality from the Thai Health Promotion Foundation

The story so far: part one described an application of Open Space Technology for community consultation on the subject of mental health. Part two proposed a thought experiment: wouldn’t it be great if the mental health profession could cure all mental health problems so successfully that the industry wasn’t needed any more? Part three examined some structural reasons why the current system favours diagnosis and treatment instead of prevention.

So, what creative solutions could be applied to these problems?

The group that originally discussed this issue back in 2008, came up with several suggestions. Research indicates the basis for good mental health often starts when we’re very young. I vividly remember the day we brought our beautiful firstborn back home from the hospital. We laid her down, we looked at each other and both said in unison, “So now what do we do?”



Wouldn’t it be great if parents received some training about how to encourage healthy mental development of their children? Some TV shows have explored this area, such as ‘Driving Mum and Dad Mad’, and ‘Supernanny’.

And why stop at parents? How about some peer support training for extended families and social groups?

Then, once children reach school, wouldn’t it be great if they received training in basic life skills and resilience in handling stressful or difficult situations in later life, such as relationships, emotions, work, money, how to deal with set-backs?


Alcohol is a curse. For the record, if you want to curse me with a bottle of vodka, that's ok...

The Thai Health Promotion Foundation has been doing some really interesting social advertising. Although some of the early efforts are a bit cringeworthy, the confidence and sophistication keep improving and they’re much more fun than some of the drab, ineffectual smoking and driving ads inflicted on Australians.

All this could be underpinned with some more investment in research about underlying root causes of mental illness.

It would also be great to see multi-tiered intervention for people before and after crisis care, along with greater education about the services available, so people are encouraged to seek help earlier. This could include more support for advocacy groups (WAAMH, ARAFMI, MIFWA, and MHPA), better leadership in the political arena, and involvement of some high profile advocates to break down the stigma associated with mental illness.

The other really big solution would be to join the dots between the various government agencies to combine social welfare and housing efforts with health. This would help reduce some unnecessary stresses that make life so much more miserable than it has to be, for people who are already vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is not a new suggestion and I have absolutely no idea how to do it.

Another embryonic idea at the forum was about providing incentives for health professionals to keep people healthy. Imagine if a GP received payment each year based on the number of patients who didn’t require any treatment at all, for anything.

What do you think?

More on mental health: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] Part 4

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Mental health part three – “help is the sunny side of control”

Help is the sunny side of control

"Help is the sunny side of control" - drawn by participant at community consultation forum on mental health

Parts one and two described an application of Open Space Technology for community consultation on the subject of mental health, touched on possible vested interests within the structure of the mental health marketplace, and proposed a thought experiment: wouldn’t it be great if the mental health profession could cure all mental health problems so successfully that the industry wasn’t needed any more?

This idea was pitched to participants at the mental health forum like this:

Vision: to reach a point where mental health services are no longer needed.
Provocation: do some aspects of the ‘mental health industry’ create an incentive for treatment instead of prevention?

The conversation benefitted from the experience of mental health professionals such as (in no particular order): Ann White from the WA Association for Mental Health (WAAMH); Rory Stemp from the South West Area Health Service (WACHS-SW); health professional Cresswell Surrao; John Curtin Medallist Lynne Evans; Positive Parenting specialist Joanne Mizen; counsellor Graeme Lamont; Community Link and Network (CLAN) CEO Stuart Tomlinson; and community worker Audrey Parnell from Narrogin.

NB: while the comments here benefited heavily from the combined wisdom of that group discussion, any mistakes or omissions are strictly my own and I apologise if I misrepresent or mangle the views of any of the other, much more knowledgeable group members.

mental health spectrum

Mental health spectrum

If mental health is a spectrum from ‘healthy’ to ‘chronically ill’, the resources tend to be focused at the chronic end of the spectrum.

As one of the participants described it, a huge injection of funding and resources kick in at the point when a crisis starts happening. Obviously this is too late.

Relatively few resources are available either side of the crisis. This is not an efficient way of allocating resources. It’s fairly well documented, in many different settings, prevention is not only better than cure, but also much cheaper.

crisis funding peak

Most of the resources are allocated immediately after the onset of a crisis. Outside the health system, this is commonly known as shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.

The benefits of prevention may extend further. A Japanese studyfound “Individuals with mental health issues both before and after intervention required more outpatient consultations than those without. The importance of considering mental health in preventing lifestyle-related diseases was confirmed.”

In other words, ensuring a high standard of mental health could have benefits across the health system.

So if promoting mental health is so much more beneficial and cost effective than diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, why don’t we allocate our health resources accordingly?

There was strong agreement within our little focus group that the current system provides incentives for more diagnosis, more treatment, and more prescription of drugs, with little incentive for prevention of root causes.

There are essentially two ‘camps’ in the mental health system: one concerned with treatment of classifiable mental illness, and one concerned with proactively developing mental health. The health debate in Australia is heavily dominated by the AMA, which is heavily skewed to the diagnosis and treatment end of the spectrum.

There are also some practical issues. Potential customers may not be aware of the range of services on offer. Or they may only present themselves for treatment at a late stage, or not at all, partly because of the social stigma attached to mental health.

One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Everyone's worst mental health nightmare, and the underlying power imbalance between mental health professionals and their customers still has currency today. (And yes, it was a book before it was a film - remember books?)

There’s also a power and control issue. I personally know at least two people whose interaction with the mental health system has resulted in some deprivation of personal freedom. I know others whose experiences have caused at least as many problems as they solved. Where do those people go for a refund?

The classical allusion here is ‘One Flew Over the Cucko’s Nest’. (For Gen-XY readers, check the episode of the Simpsons when Homer is declared insane after Bart completes his psych evaluation.)

It’s also true some of the underlying root causes of mental illness are poorly understood. Although there is an understanding of certain minimum conditions to support mental health, these conditions are not evenly distributed across socio/geographic areas, and that’s not easy to fix.

Pharmaceutical companies and doctors are only paid for the work they do, not the work they have prevented.

And so the list goes on…

Waxing lyrical about the issues can be cathartic, but not necessarily constructive. So, in part four, let’s get creative and think about some possible solutions.

More on mental health: [Part 1] [Part 2] Part 3 [Part 4]

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How big is my family?

A Passion for Results

Sharon McGann's website: A Passion for Results

I just came across a short article by Sharon McGann, with a consulting firm called A Passion for Results (which is a great name, isn’t it).

The title of Sharon’s article is: ‘Teaching our kids life literacy – we owe it to them’, and she’s writing about meeting some adults who are working to provide positive role models for kids in suburbs with hardcore, intergenerational unemployment.

Immediately my thoughts turned to my own children, then I realised the operative word is ‘our’; how do we define who are ‘our’ kids?

Much has been written and said about the modern disintegration of the networks which used to give kids access to a range of adult role models beyond their parents.

Kim and I work hard to ensure our children are exposed to our adult friends and extended family, because we see how important it is for them to experience those interactions, and we see how much they latch on to and emulate the behaviours of other adults, beyond mum and dad.

I see direct evidence that exposure to adult company has helped Lily’s growth.

It also points the other way. We have a responsibility to model positive behaviours for each other’s kids. There is a modern taboo about intruding in any way on another person’s parenting. Intervening in the behaviour of someone else’s child can feel like stepping into a mine-field. We all have such different approaches to setting and enforcing boundaries.

However, it’s important we do set boundaries. It’s not that hard to let a child know where the boundary is, in a way that’s supportive, relatively unintrusive, and without implying any criticism of them or their parents. Doing nothing is a cop-out. If we see a child hurting another child, or snatching a toy, and we say nothing, we are tacitly condoning that behaviour.

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Dilbert on marketing

The timeless wisdom of Scott Adams. This is going straight on the wall.

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