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The Big Brother effect of KPIs

Who wants robotic performance in the era of creative challenges? 

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals” Henry David Thoreau

The day I was told that my team had to measure “happiness” and that I should set a target for “the number of opinions” a lawyer issues per hour, I freaked out. I was heading a team of very senior, mature lawyers working on innovative deals. It felt absurd to ask them to spend time measuring their feelings and setting quantitative KPIs for work that requires complex analysis and creative solutions.

We all know that objectives have to be concrete and measurable, that efficiency is a good friend of to-do lists, that commitment and follow up are indispensable to achieve one’s goals. I have negotiated hundreds of IT agreements where KPIs are indispensable and serve their purpose.

But trying to apply Key Performance Indicators to everything is insane. People forget the key word in KPIs: “Key” means that they have to be representative, selective. When applied excessively, or to the wrong kind of task, they can be extremely counterproductive, killing all opportunity for creativity and engagement.

Creativity is not a buzzword

The World Economic Forum lists creativity as an essential skill in the coming years. I don’t know of a leader who would deny the importance of creativity. It is no longer a luxury or a buzzword.

Artificial Intelligence is introducing fast changes in the labour market. Slowly but surely, what seemed science fiction is unfolding, every day jobs disappear to automation.

Computers and robots replace functions that are not only mechanical but also those that used to be reserved to highly specialised humans. There are already computers that replace tasks that before only doctors, lawyers and accountants could do.

A report of February 2016 published by Citibank jointly with Oxford University foresees that in the USA 47% of jobs are at risk of disappearing due to automation, about 37% in the U.K. and a staggering 77% in China, while the percentage is an average of 57% across the OECD[1].

Only the creative and social functions will continue to be required, since machines have difficulties to reproduce the intention and conceptual relationships within a holistic context, which constitute the essential elements to find new combinations of ideas.

If what we need is more creativity, then it is time to understand how it works.

It boils down to intrinsic motivation.

In a study of the Social Psychology of Creativity, Teresa M. Amabile and Julianna Pillemer, refer to the components that influence creativity: individuals must have: (1) knowledge: domain-relevant skills (expertise, technical skill, and innate talent in what they aim to do); (2) flexibility: creativity-relevant skills (flexible cognitive style, personality traits such as openness to experience, skill in using creative-thinking heuristics, and persistent work style), and (3) intrinsic task motivation.

In addition, the social environment, can influence each of the individual components. Research shows that the environment has an immediate and prevalent influence on intrinsic motivation.

Creative work, i.e. the production of novel, appropriate work is a delicate process that is directly affected by pressures and constraints. "Albert Einstein, for example, felt so overwhelmed by the strict examination period at his militaristic boarding school that he almost lost interest in science altogether. It wasn’t until he fortuitously failed an exam and subsequently enrolled in an academy emphasizing individual thought that his creativity truly began to flourish", recalls Amabile in her Harvard Journal of Creative Behaviour paper.

Constant monitoring (i.e. a KPI-lead corporate culture that ties reward to KPI performance on creative tasks) undermines creative efforts because it causes a shift of intrinsic motivation to extrinsic motivation (e.g., the promise of rewards or praise, or the threat of failing to meet a deadline or receiving a negative evaluation).

Set your own intrinsic motivation KPIs

If managers focus on measuring only the measurable and inspiring people to drive improvements by themselves, the natural result is an increase in creativity. Fear of failure to achieve may make people move mechanically, but does not create the conditions for more fresh, new ideas.

Centering all your energy in Productivity and Performance is Passionless –and dangerous-, it distracts you from the really important “P”: your Purpose.​​

If intrinsic motivation is such an important factor in creativity, there is already something each of us can do today in order to spark our own creativity. We can decide to create our own KPIs. I have banned hollow Key Performance Indicators from my life. These are more inspiring personal KPIs to live by:

  • Keep your Personal Inspiration alive: the more motivated you are, the easier it is to enjoy what you are doing and in turn this will inspire those around you.  True leaders inspire because their own enthusiasm is contagious.  Make time for hobbies, sports, yoga, meditation, art and other activities that feed your body, mind and soul. 
  • Keep Picking Intelligently: does a task fit in with your goal in life or are you at least learning from it? Then engage with passion and try your best. Does it take you away from what you want and it doesn’t bring anything positive to you or those who need your energy? Toss it!
  • Know and Practice using your Imagination: allow yourself to be inventive and you will find that you are meeting more targets and finding new ways of being productive – without the pressure of having to measure every single step. In other words: Play! 

I know, sometimes you are not the one setting those KPIs. Well, try this one: Kindly use your Personal Influence. There are always ways to move people in other directions. Try speaking to other people's own personal interest and propose alternatives. If that doesn’t work and you are forced to follow certain targets – know how to place them – they are just someone’s KPIs, not the whole purpose of your life.

And finally, appreciate that not everything is about being industrious. Do more of what you love. Do it keenly. 

I have a little gold medal that says: “more than yesterday, less than tomorrow”. It is a love promise. I don’t want to forget what it means. I don’t want it to mean “more stress, more anxiety, more fear that I will not meet my KPIs”. It means “more energy, more passion, more curiosity and interest, more meaning, more fun”. This involves more work and more commitment, but I know it will result in more productivity if I'm guided by the right KPIs.

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