Rethinking The Use of KPIs In The Digital Era

Most companies do not deploy Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) rigorously for review or as drivers of change. This is the overall finding from a recent survey report, Leading With Next Generation Key Performance Indicators, published by MIT Sloan Management Review. The report is biased towards Sales and Marketing functions.

Changes in the business environment such as accelerating technological innovation, intensifying competitive pressure, significant emerging risks, increasing customer expectations, and complex regulations are influencing business models and causing tremendous shifts in the strategic direction of the company.

As a result, executives are struggling to balance tactical and strategic KPIs, including operational and financial KPIs that effectively capture the moment while anticipating the future.

Part of the survey findings include:

  • KPIs are not enjoying special status as either enablers or drivers of change in many companies. Instead of providing value added insight to guide and drive performance improvements, KPIs are more about “tick-box” compliance. Either that gives you a sense of the scale of key decisions made on intuition versus data-driven or it makes you realize that despite the critical role of KPIs in enabling informed decisions, many executives are still not aware of this.
  • Lack of alignment of KPIs with strategic objectives. Only 26% of the survey respondents agreed that their functional KPIs are aligned with the organization’s stated goals and strategic priorities. Such a huge disconnect explains why many companies are struggling to execute their strategy more effectively.
  • Customer-focused KPIs are increasingly becoming more important. Many companies are taking a more customer-centric approach to spur growth. As a result, they are seeking to understand customers in more holistic ways. 63% of respondents say they are now using KPIs (such as NPS, customer segmentation, customer lifetime value, brand equity, churn) to develop a single integrated view of the customer and understand the customer’s experience at each touch point including the aggregated journey.

Based on respondents’ answers to a specific set of questions on how well a company has aligned its use of KPIs, the report authors were able to categorize the companies into three – Measurement Leaders, Measurement Capable and Measurement Challenged.

According to the study findings, six behaviors are common to Measurement Leaders:

  1. Use KPIs to lead, as well manage, the business. Companies falling into this category treat their KPIs not simply as “numbers to hit” but as tools of transformation. KPIs are used to effectively align the organization (people and processes) and also provide predictive insight that help frame strategy and lead the company into the future.
  2. Develop an integrated view of the customer: Respondents falling into this category have shifted their focus beyond traditional financial and customer satisfaction metrics to including externally focused KPIs that enable them to better segment and engage customers. Such measures complement and build upon more internally focused process KPIs. However, an integrated customer view remains an aspiration for many businesses. For example, 41% of survey respondents are still managing digital customers separately from physical customers. Companies that are making progress in this space are experimenting with automation and machine learning technologies to develop a 360-degree view of their customers.
  3. See KPIs as data sets for machine learning: Nearly 75% of executives surveyed expect that ML/AI technologies will help them achieve strategic goals. Instead of viewing KPIs just as analytic outputs for business performance review and planning, organizations can take advantage of ML which empowers software and systems to learn from data-driven experience. This creates opportunities to use KPIs (individually and collectively) and their underlying data to teach ML algorithms to improve and optimize their performance and drive marketing activities. However, care must be taken that the KPIs used as data inputs for ML actually reflect business reality, otherwise the systems will learn from wrong inputs leading to garbage in, garbage out.
  4. Drill Down into KPI Components: Drilling down to a KPIs components is critical for effective KPIs. It helps executives see the underlying data or analytic components that are aggregated into KPIs, determine why specific KPIs have over or under-achieved and prioritize critical business issues. For example, the drilling down can be done according to different customers, segments, channels or different products. Legacy organizations with legacy IT systems and legacy financial reporting processes, however, generally lack this capability
  5. Share trusted KPI data: While it is true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, having shared KPIs facilitates effective cross-functional collaboration because managers can see the positive or negative impact of their own KPIs on others. This cause-and-effect relationship also enables opportunistic efficiencies and outcomes. Although transparent, shareable KPIs can create new dynamics, in some cases, conflict may arise within the organization due to overstepping of boundaries in turn affecting accountability.
  6. Aim for KPI Parsimony: There is no magic number of desirable effective KPIs for an organization. However, too many KPIs easily become unwieldy, unmanageable, and create unrealistic expectations. Too few might result in the neglect of critical business issues. In today’s digital world characterized by data proliferation, it is much easier to get carried away and succumb to “KPI creep”. Measurement leaders know what to focus on – a balanced set of vital and valuable KPIs that have massive potential to make a huge difference to their businesses. Instead of wasting resources on ordinary metrics or measures that promote bad behaviours and fail to influence the strategic priorities of the business, they understand that to be effective and account for business success, KPIs must truly be “key” performance indicators.

To obtain greater value and returns from their KPIs, the report recommends companies to identify their top 3 enterprise and top 3 functional KPIs, create a process for ongoing enterprise-wide discussion of KPIs, and treat KPIs as a special class of data asset.

Additionally, I believe company leadership should also:

  • Acknowledge that effective performance measurement requires a cultural shift. The fish rots from the head. If there is no executive sponsorship, chances are high that the use of KPIs to drive growth will remain relegated to the lower rungs of the ladder.
  • Integrate performance management with risk management. The former looks at KPIs and the latter looks at Key Risk Indicators (KRIs). Business success is also a result of making informed and intelligent risk decisions
  • Start with the WHY of data collection. While it may be true to say that data and analytics are the raw ingredients of KPIs, a company’s data needs must be supported by the key performance questions raised. It is therefore imperative to ask critical questions before accessing any new data.
  • Understand that technology is just a means to an end and not the end itself. A company does not necessarily need to invest in new technology to reap returns from its KPIs. Just because “experts” are preaching the gospel of ML/AI as the solution to modern business problems, first evaluate if your business is in dire need of such technology and cannot survive without it.
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Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

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The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

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Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

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