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Thoughts on Defining Your Performance Story
September 22, 2014

Graeme Chase Graeme Chase
Senior Consultant,
Specialist Business Analysis and Project Leadership
The role of Performance Management within government departments and agencies continues to evolve and mature to, alongside audit and evaluation become a key tool to assess program’s impact and demonstrate the value they deliver. The Treasury Board Directive on Performance Management is supported by extensive literature, training materials and guidance to assist programs in developing and implementing a high performance culture.

From a practical perspective, performance management is about telling the story, supported by evidence to highlight the programs value and makes you, the reader say “wow”. Performance management is a complex issue and in many instances is being implemented retroactively to long standing initiatives. To facilitate implementation within the federal organisational structures, a linear and outcome based approach is promoted. In effect, the program(s) does “activity A” to generate this “outcome” so that “activity B (next outcome)” can occur. The program feeds into a branch outcome so the branch contributes to an agency or departmental outcome which, in turn supports a Government of Canada outcome. There are significant merits to the approach in terms of reporting the big picture (DPR etc).

One of my concerns has been to relate the day to day activities of program delivery to the benefits of this umbrella performance reporting without losing the program identity and being able to address the issues and questions often highlighted by the 5 year program level evaluation.

And it seems to me, a consequence of this high level approach appears to be difficulty in telling the program(s) story to the outsider and highlighting their value as part of the whole. In effect, the program risks being lost in the noise and unable to tell the story. At the same time, at the program level, experience suggests many still find it hard to relate the value of telling their programs story and using indicators as supporting evidence for their daily activities.

I am the first to highlight performance management is a complex and can be a sensitive issue and we all have differing opinions and experiences. However, working recently with a group of high profile G&C’s programs to retrofit a performance management system, it became clear that using a case study to tell the impact of the programs and support the PMS was a significant benefit.

The case study becomes the vehicle relate activity to outcome and illustrate the added value to the reader. And let’s be clear – the problem here is to convey what you are trying to achieve (the problem to be addressed) and how, why only you can achieve the outcome, how does this support the ultimate outcome and what is the value added today?

And for programs where it may be hard to quantify the short term performance evidence i.e. economic benefits of smoking prevention or policemen on the beat, the case study provides a vehicle to relate the program benefits by bringing secondary sources of supporting evidence into play.

And this brings me to the key element of this approach. How do you create a blockbuster case study? Shift the bulk of the energy, time and resources to defining the problem on the basis poor definition will result in a poor story and supporting evidence. To define the program (and your problem) early lays the foundation for a strong PMS. By intricately examining every detail of the program and following a structured methodology, this key phase is often surprisingly insightful for all participants; allowing them to rediscover their knowledge of the program, refresh understanding, what they do and why.

Key elements during the structured definition phase include process mapping, scheduling analysis, clarification of organisation structures and reporting lines; developing clarity and understanding of purpose; identifying what has been achieved and what remains; alignment with original mandate versus branch or organisational outcomes; what data is available and from where; who are the clients – internal and external; accountability structures to name a few and allows you to revisit key questions including why does the program exist; who is your audience; does the problem exist and how are you expecting to address or contribute towards the bigger picture today?

Two recurring issues often occur during this structured definition phase. Firstly, I am frequently surprised by the variance in understanding of common terms, definitions and phraseology highlighted by analysis. Place emphasis on developing a list of standardised and shared definitions relevant for the program as a key tool in the programs understanding and ability to explain what they are doing and how.

Secondly, early problem definition facilitates understanding of “what is your story” and the message you need to “highlight”. Early understanding of these key issues allows you to shape the outcome and quickly identify if existing indicators and evidence will help you demonstrate your contribution to the ultimate outcome. This early clarity allows direction of project resources to address shortfalls i.e. developing and aligning relevant indicators to provide strong supporting evidence to clearly illustrate the programs added value to an outsider

Conversely, experience suggests the risk of not defining your outcomes early on is you shortchange yourself when creating a relevant reflection of your “bang for buck” and potentially miss key supporting evidence

To summarise, by defining the problem or what you do, why and how early on combined with a detailed history and process mapping helps identify the direction to take and build evidence to strengthen your PMS. Additionally, (and maybe this is the real benefit) early problem definition and self examination builds internal confidence in and understanding of both the program and the benefits of performance management