Sunday, March 1, 2009

Concrete Deliverables: Watch out for Goal Displacement

Burt Perrin, in a report entitled, Implementing the Vision: Addressing Challenges to Results-Focused Management and Budgeting writes,
Goal displacement occurs when indicators become the objective, where the focus is on “meeting the numbers” rather than doing what the program was created to do or improving actual outcomes. Thus it represents the distortion of program activities.
In fact it is conceivable that working to meet number targets may even produce "perverse effects" such as serving those easiest to serve rather than those in most need, or focusing on procedural efficiencies to increase numbers (of transactions, say) rather than improving system efficiencies, which might decrease them. This occurs for two reasons.

First, efficiencies, which numbers measure (more or less accurately), are not goals, but ways of achieving goals. Numbers are not targets, but for tracking. Second, as Perrin notes, "It does not always make sense to attempt to represent a complex initiative by just a very small number of quantitative indicators. There typically is an inverse relationship between what is important and what is easiest to count and to measure."

So as people focus on meeting the numbers and confuse the report for the result, they close off to the complexity of the situation, and actions become skewed to achieving "concrete deliverables" which could be anything but. What do we take to be objective today? Is it the evidence of the senses, all the flux and change that happens in real time? Well, not really! It is rather what can be measured, quantified and counted.

Getting the numbers right is not an easy matter. To count measure and something, you need to have a category or definition, which is a static mental compartment and sorting device. For example, in order to count employees, you first have to establish a category or definition of "employee" for your organization. If your definition of employee changes, your numbers will change, even if nothing "concrete" changes.

So now, the question about what constitutes objectivity moves up a level. How many of the categories and definitions we use are given and natural like mammal and bird and how many are social and historical like person or fiscal year? Many categories may seem self-evident but to what extent is our confidence in our categories due to social and historical factors, including learning, rather than natural ones? Have we arrived at the end of learning? Of course not.

When it comes to precision measurements and results, physics is the archetype. To discover physical laws, physicists have to establish that their results are reproducible. They need to determine what factors need to be controlled and what properties are internal to the phenomena under investigation. When developing tests they carefully articulate operational definitions, which define phenomena in mathematical terms. There is no algorithm or checklist procedure for these activities, and it takes a great deal of skill, knowledge and insight. You might say, there is an “art” to ensuring objectivity.

Scientists in areas such as biology and geology and even some areas of physics, are investigating things where there are innumerable factors that cannot be isolated and controlled. Scientists are beginning to question whether we have been acting as if something is real because it is measurable, rather than the reverse. (See for instance, Robert Laughlin's A Different Universe.) They emphasize the need to think of nature more as a dynamic complex system. This moves the question of what constitutes objectivity up yet another level because it means considering not just how we define something for the purposes of counting instances of it, but how we frame and contextualize it to distinguish relevant from irrelevant factors in understanding how it behaves and changes over time as a part of a system.

If anything is complex, human organizations, and especially public service organizations, are complex. How closely do the auditor's and comptroller's categories ally with those of the organizational or program strategist's? In the public service, how do you know when you have contributed to the public good? rather than burdened your employees with administrivialities and set them on the straight and narrow road to pursuing "concrete deliverables" that are anything but. Is being quantifiable a necessary quality of all worthwhile goals? How realistic is that?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the article and the blog. I agree that we need to do a better job of measuring effectiveness. Coincidentally, I read this today "Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting" text