Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

Most of us still remember the story on Evil Queen and Snow White. The magic mirror never lies. “My Queen, you are the fairest in the land” answered the mirror until Snow white got older and the answer changed ”My Queen, you are the fairest here so true. But Snow White is a thousand times more beautiful than you.” [See Wiki if you don’t know or can’t remember]

This old story suddenly popped into my mind from the things I’ve been working with recently; issues of public management, performance measurement and knowledge.

Okay, where is the beef? Let me explain how I see it.

Performance measurement and management is about comparisons. Against last year’s results, competitor’s results or preset objectives. It is like looking to a mirror and asking “who’s the fairest of them all”, especially if you compare to someone else’s results. Isn’t it? But the same actually matters for the objectives. I’ll get back to this.

Developing measures is about choosing the mirror. To what or to whom do you compare your beauty? We all trust or at least hope that we are the fairest. We seek measures to strengthen this. There has to be a niche where we beat them all.

Back to objectives as promised. The most interesting area is the comparison against the preset objectives. I just love this. Who sets the targets? If it is you, what is your level of aspiration? What is enough or too much, what motivates and what discourages? Who decides or who knows? Who is legitimate to set objectives?

Look around you. Is one enough? Two too much? How much you can tolerate and what is realistic? I’m not asking for more, just some common sense.

Are you following me? If you define the objectives, aren’t you asking yourself who’s the fairest? Can you maintain your objectivity? Is the mirror honest? What do you think?

I think that there is a risk that the mirror loses its objectivity. Who to blame? The one in the mirror!

Sorry to say but for me it seems that this logic is increasingly gaining ground. Me, myself and I – we beat them all. We are pushing our own agenda without paying attention what others are doing (i.e. what happens outside the frames); and measure our beauty against our own illusion without considering whether the things we do are leading where we want to go.

It is of course only human. If you have a performance-related pay or if you are in position where fulfilling the objectives guarantees your future, in a way or another, you are most tempted to downgrade the objectives or make them a bit blurry. To give some leash. Think of politicians.

Ultimately, the bluff will be called. The Evil Queen got to face the truth. “A thousand times more beautiful”, that must have hurt.

So, what was the whole story about?

Yes, I know you got it now. We don’t do performance measurement to shore up our own egos. We do it for the sake of objectivity. To have another perspective and to understand where we have to improve. Performance information enables learning by pointing out our weaknesses (and of course the strengths too); are you ready to accept them? To admit that you are not the fairest of them all? Are you ready to work on that?

That is the right attitude! With that engagement, someday, the mirror will answer: “My Queen, you are the fairest in the land”.

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