With the arrival of the holiday season comes the inevitable onslaught of television classics, including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Home Alone”. While each are good movies in their own right, I wonder if the latter became a holiday staple largely based on the sheer number of times it was repeated in the first few years after it came out. Familiarity breeds comfort.
As often happens, this musing collided with my day job such that I started extrapolating to performance management. After they roll out a strategic objective, organizations measure increased performance largely because management has signaled what is important to them. Employees focus on improving the objective… at least for a while.
My experience shows that this increased performance is often a short-term blip with much of the benefits subsiding after attention wanders elsewhere. While there are many culprits, I believe the main issue is that the initiatives created to improve performance are not necessarily the same ones required to sustain performance. Sustainable performance improvement requires a fundamental change in behavior or environment.
For fun, we can draw a comparison to the difference between Scrooge and the Grinch. In the both stories, the main character starts out hating Christmas and seemingly all people. Both end up as good guys but they get there in completely different ways. Scrooge is essentially scared straight by the Ghost of Christmas Future while the Grinch is overcome with emotion by the Hoos’ ability to focus on the spirit of the holiday rather than the material trappings.
As a clue that his changed performance might be sustainable, we’re told that the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes that day. Talk about a literal change of heart! On the other hand, there’s no evidence that Scrooge has fundamentally changed. It’s entirely possible that Scrooge will go back to his old ways as soon as the shock wears off.
One conclusion from this interpretation is that carrots work better than sticks in truly changing behavior. But another possibility is that we should focus our improvement initiatives less on just closing the gap in performance (turning red to green) and more on the root cause of the issue. Unfortunately, this is at odds with many consultants who would be financially better off by coming back every year and re-scaring Scrooge into acting charitably. Perhaps they are the true Grinches.