August 2017

Book review: Prove it! How to create a high-performance culture and measurable success by Stacy Barr

  • By Alex Atkins FAusIMM(CP)

When I first picked up this book, I felt a sense of dread. Being a creative person, I detest KPIs and those Six Sigma dogmatics who push the line ‘you cannot manage what you cannot measure’ – a form of transactional bureaucracy.

To me, performance management and other organisational measurements are a form of convergence on a solution – and sometimes the solutions are wrong because they are static in a dynamic world.

Having a growth mindset, I prefer divergent thinking, agility and the ability to fast fail and pivot – the necessary ingredients for innovation and creative disruption, which are essential in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

On reading the first chapter of Barr’s book, I liked the focus on the importance of clarity in your organisation’s vision and mission in order to inspire the troops and on the importance of their buy-in to the vision, mission, organisational goals and what it takes to achieve them.

The concept of a ‘high-performance culture’ is mentioned a lot in this book. In my experience, I think everything comes down to people and culture – you need to engage with your people at the level of their hearts and minds to make great things happen.

Barr talks about the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), which she explains as ‘success defined by the perspectives of every stakeholder affected by the company’ in order to avoid immoral business practices. At this point I’m thinking: okay, I can go with this. I also can’t help but notice there’s a lot of name dropping in this book; Barr has done some reading.

In Chapter 2, Barr eludes to the difficulties many people have with taking ownership of perfection targets like ‘zero harm’ and achieving ‘100 per cent on-time performance’ – a confronting concept given that 100 per cent control is pretty unrealistic. Barr introduces the concept of evidence-based leadership as the answer to this problem: ‘Evidence-based leaders routinely talk about: the purpose of the organisation; the evidence that the purpose is being fulfilled; and what that evidence says about how well that’s happening.’

Thankfully, in Chapter 3, Barr admits that even though evidence is a tool, it’s also a rod for our back. She talks of leaders making the decision to use data to perform well, which might mean sometimes being proven wrong or impotent. The process forces leaders to hone in on levers that drive strategic results and to improve performance.

In Chapter 4, Barr talks about what to focus on (what matters most) and the role of evidence in high-performance cultures. Organisational habits of decision, action and learning are developed based on three leadership habits: direction, execution and evidence.

By the time I’ve read Part I (Chapters 1-4), I’m now a fan of Barr – she gets it!

In Part II, Barr dives deeper into the habits of direction, evidence and execution. She talks about her epiphany when working for Queensland Rail and the development of ‘PuMP’ (Performance Measurement Process). This was a response to some of the most common struggles people have with measuring performance, which are:

  • finding meaningful ways to measure intangible and qualitative results (eg employee capability, culture change and innovation)
  • agreeing on the best measures for vague goals (eg provide timely, unbiased, quality advice)
  • getting buy-in from owners on the performance measures and getting them to understand that milestones and actions are not measures.

It’s like Barr knew about my KPI misgivings from my terrible experience with KPIs at a government job I held. She gives an example of how holding people accountable to KPIs can do more harm than good, and states that it’s not fair to hold people accountable for things beyond their control. The KPI process can be paternalistic, treating employees as though they can’t be trusted and leads to a state of fear and defensiveness – not conducive to creativity and a high-performance culture.

The secret is to measure process results, not people, to harness their intrinsic motivation to make things better. Barr discusses agency-theory style incentives (gaming), where KPIs are linked to bonuses and promotions, which leads to short-term behaviours like cost-cutting and relocating bottlenecks. Barr suggests redefining accountability for performance in a more constructive way.

In Chapter 7, Barr discusses ways to leverage strengths and to identify patterns to improve processes, because problems are in the processes, not the people. I love this – I can think of many personally frustrating work experiences that gel with this statement. Barr argues that it’s far better to give people opportunities to learn and grow and apply their skill and creativity to collaboratively make the processes better.

In Part III, Barr explores the habits of decision, action and learning. The standout chapter for me is Chapter 10: ‘Success Loves Speed’. This is about changing mindsets and having the learning-oriented organisational culture required to enable experimentation and innovation.

By the time I finished the book, I realised Barr is on the same wavelength as me. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in how to do evidence-based leadership in a process-centric way that brings everyone along for the ride and results in improved outcomes.

This book is available to purchase from the Wiley website.

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