Chris Morris’ latest film, The Day Shall Come (2019) has a lot to say about the activities of the FBI and other law enforcement organisations in America. It’s darkly satirical and politically controversial, much like the highly acclaimed Four Lions (2010), and everything you would expect a Chris Morris film to be.
Spoiler alert: I recommend renting this film and giving it a watch because it’s really good. There are some minor spoilers in this article, so if you’re interested in watching the film with innocent eyes, please do so before reading on.
This film raises so many topics worth talking about, but today I want to discuss what the film can tell us about KPIs (key performance indicators) and how changing the way we measure success could improve the way we work.
KPIs are commonplace business development goals these days, but for me they’re just another one of those impersonal acronyms that makes business feel less human-friendly. As a dedicated and diligent employee, the very phrase ‘key performance indicators’ sends shivers down my spine.
One of the most unpleasant things about this acronym is the feeling that your performance is being measured - and against what? More often than not, it’s some arbitrary benchmark of success that someone has assigned to you without knowing much about what you do or how you like to work.
This doesn’t just apply to individual performance, but company-wide performance too. Who sets the goals? What are they based on? What will happen if we achieve them?
Typical KPIs are ‘Get 2,000 new Facebook followers this month,’ or ‘Make £10,000 worth of sales this week,’ or ‘Sell 500 units of this product this month,’ or ‘Convert 20 people over the phone in a day,’ or ‘Turnover £1 million this year.’ This type of goal may be familiar to you, and on the surface they seem fine - they are intended to drive people on towards ever greater levels of success.
But where have these numbers come from? Are they based on any kind of analysis? If your goals are arbitrary then you’ll never make any meaningful progress, personally or as a company.
KPIs are dangerous because they prescribe set, often arbitrary goals for people to achieve, but they don’t explain why they’re worth achieving and they don’t set any ground rules for how they should be achieved.
In The Day Shall Come an FBI task force is charged with the duty of apprehending a terrorist cell operating on US soil. In the shadow of the operation that captured Osama Bin Laden, this task force faces growing pressure to meet similar success. So much pressure, in fact, that they engineer increasingly ridiculous scenarios in order to trick an otherwise innocent man into performing an act of terrorism, just so that they can arrest him.
They are so focused on their KPI - to apprehend a terrorist as soon as possible - that they lose sight of why they do their jobs - to keep people safe.
A KPI that steers employees away from the very reason they do their jobs is a bad KPI.
So is there such a thing as a good KPI?
Yeah, there is. But you can’t have KPIs floating around without any context. You need to communicate why you believe these goals are important (and I don’t mean just to make money), and provide your team with the resources and support they need to achieve them in the best way.
That’s where OKRs come in (yes, another business-like acronym, but at least this one has the word ‘OK’ in it). OKR stands for objectives and key results, which is pretty meaningless really. But what I see an OKR as is something that helps you achieve your core function as a company - your driving force, your ethos, your ‘why’ message, your cause.
Typically an OKR sounds a bit ‘fluffier’ than a KPI. ‘Be the company everyone comes to for this service,’ ‘Be the source of knowledge in this particular field,’ ‘Be an organisation people can trust to deliver this particular promise,’ ‘Inspire people to get behind us and support us through thick and thin.’
Let’s go back to the FBI example. Their core function is to keep US citizens safe. What OKRs might help them achieve this? Restricting access to dangerous weapons and materials, perhaps. Ensuring that those who might stray towards terrorism are given alternative paths to follow, maybe. Supporting citizens who come to them for help, certainly. But in their pursuit of their KPI, the FBI task force in TDSC does the exact opposite of all these things.
Where KPIs are valuable is in support of a great OKR. If you can connect your goal to that more general objective, which in turn connects directly to your core value, then that KPI becomes meaningful, achievable and inspiring. You don’t want to take shortcuts to achieve it, because you can see the greater good it will do. You care about the outcome because you can see what value it will bring.
So next time you’re setting your monthly KPIs or talking to your team about personal development, keep in mind that poor, misguided FBI task force. Can you do better for your team? I think so.
Who wrote this?
She / her; red / blue. Mel is a writer, editor and designer. Equally happy hiking a muddy trail as playing tabletop roleplay games by candlelight. Will seize any opportunity for a party, as long as said party features copious food, prosecco and hits from the 1980s. Her true passion lies in words. A student of literature, she is fascinated by enduring myths, etymology and science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut is her hero. “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.”