Doing the Wrong Things Right (part 1)

“[I know of] employees who plan ahead to sit next to their CEO on a five-hour flight to bend his or her ear, thinking it will boost their career.  Don’t do it! Again, it’s an example of doing the wrong things right, which will only harm your career.” — Jeffrey Fox

The phrase “doing the wrong things right” came up in in my phone interview with best selling business author Jeffrey Fox for an article available on this blog.  And if I recall our conversation correctly, someone really did do the ‘annoy the CEO for five hours on a plane’ tactic, thinking it would help their career. It didn’t.

Right or Wrong, Well or Poorly - by EffectiveCIO.comI googled “doing the wrong things right” awhile back and found a very relevant article Right or Wrong? Well or Poorly? by Chuck Musciano. (One quibble: for Chuck’s chart (see left) accompanying his blog post, it is the “doing the wrong things right” quadrant that should be red; doing the wrong things with relentless speed and efficiency is the worst of all possible worlds!)

From Chuck Musciano’s post:

Doing the wrong things right is often known as “paving cowpaths.”  Some awful business processes are so entrenched that they cannot be rooted out.  Discretion being the better part of valor, we choose to automate bad processes, throwing good technology at a bad system.

Agree!  But how do such awful business processes come into being in the first place?  I suggest those ‘cowpaths to hell’ were paved with good but badly misguided intentions, using misguided information.

I think the key cause to “doing the wrong things right” from both a leadership and business intelligence (BI perspective is clearly traceable back to “measuring the wrong things right.”

For example, consider an an article by business performance management expert Craig Schiff, advocating for employee incentive pay based on performance:

The holy grail of business performance management (BPM) is to compensate people based on their achievement of corporate, departmental, and individual goals and objectives. While BPM is good at measuring progress against objectives, it is of little value if it doesn’t change people’s behavior, which in turn should help improve the bottom line. Incentive compensation based on what is being measured by the BPM system is a way to do that.

It is true that setting incentives will change employee behavior, but unfortunately not as often for the better as one might imagine.  I have major concerns with the concept of widespread, heavily incentive-driven compensation based on the certain data measures tracked by a BPM/BI solution…

First, who decides what the “right” measure(s) are? Amy Domini, founder and CEO of Domini Social Investments, argues quite convincingly that “[only] what’s published gets measured, and [only] what’s measured gets evaluated and improved.”  When certain select measures – typically financial performance and worker efficiency – are utilized to evaluate business performance, a whole host of other very important measures will go unmeasured…with detrimental changes in human behavior as a result; aka, “doing the wrong things right.”

Domini elaborates in an article entitled Digging into the Data (not online, unfortunately) that some companies are already proactively reporting not just what their results are (i.e., profit and loss) but also how they are doing it, sustainably, safely and ethically (further reading: Global Reporting Initiative).  Most companies do not do this, of course.  Meanwhile, for example, Japanese companies must report greenhouse gas emissions, but usually report “per unit” emissions, not emissions in the aggregate.  Sony, however, is voluntarily reporting this much more relevant statistic, believing (correctly, I think) this transparency will strengthen its public image.  Another compelling example: Some detective work by Domini’s team disclosed a disturbing increase in worker fatalities for some European cement manufacturers, which had, not coincidentally, withheld this data for certain years.

Barry Schwartz, in his inspiring TED talk on the loss of wisdom, shared that he had spoken with hospital janitors he spoke with who applied wisdom to their work. How? They would defer or redo work tasks, in the best interests of patients and their families, such as not vacuuming the waiting area carpet so as not to disturb a family holding vigil there during a family member’s emergency surgery.

But imagine if those janitors were reprimanded for their actions (!) by a misguided hospital facilities supervisor “measuring the wrong things right” (in this case, measuring on-time performance of janitorial tasks and worker efficiency)! It should be plain to see that a negative change in behavior is being encouraged, namely encouraging janitors to absolutely, positively complete all tasks as planned as fast as possible, without considering the adverse effects on patient care and compassion. The janitors would now be measured – even rewarded! – by how “well” they do the wrong things right! Schwartz provides other compelling stories highlighting how rule enforcement and/or incentives lead to measuring, and doing, the wrong things right.

So how can organizations measure and do “the right things right”?  I got an idea on this recently from a business friend of mine, who does not yet even know that he and his company gave me the idea!  I will blog about this in “part 2” next weekthe link is right here!

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