“Do Your Best” Is Not A Plan

My buddy Bolivar Shagnasty described a problem he was having with his manager (Dirk Karkles). At their annual review, Dirk wasn’t presenting any measurable goals for Bolivar’s performance. “I just want you to do your best,” said Dirk. “As long as you do your best, I’ll be satisfied.” Bolivar wasn’t happy with this statement, but was unsure why. After all, shouldn’t everyone try to do his best?

Bolivar is an excellent worker, but Dirk Karkles would always find something unsatisfactory with Bolivar’s performance. “Is this really your best?” he would ask. “Well, yes,” Bolivar would say, “but I can tell you’re not happy with it. What level of performance on this task would make you happy?”

Dirk’s answer was, “I just want you to do your best. I don’t want to limit you by setting goals for you. For example, if I set a goal for you of ’30’, and you’re capable of doing ’50’, then I’ve cheated you of ’20’ by setting too low a goal. You don’t want me to cheat you of your best performance, do you?”

* * *

As personal philosophy, “do your best” is hard to beat, but as a management plan, it sucks. A manager cannot externally measure when you’ve attained “your best” in anything but the most strictly-defined activties (like a “personal best” in sports). The developer manager who uses “do your best” as goal direction is being lazy by avoiding the hard work of defining his expectations, and is setting his workers up for failure.

Here are some reasons “do your best” is a poor management plan:

  • It’s not measurable.
  • A worker’s “best” is a contingent target; it depends on how you marshal your limited resources (time, energy, attention, etc). If you do your absolute top best on one task, it reduces the amount of resources available for another task, so you have not done your “best” on everything. This means there is always something for the manager to point at and say “you’re not doing your best.”
  • Even assuming that it is a legitimate goal, there is no way to exceed the expectation of “your best.” This means doing your absolute top best at all times is only “breaking even” as far as the manager is concerned. This is demoralizing to a worker; every single time he misses even a small thing, he gets picked-at for not doing his best. This leads to lower performance, since the goal of “your best” can never be truly met at all times.
  • It is lazy and greedy on the part of the manager. His job is to meet measurable goals, not to wring workers dry. The line about “then I’ve cheated you of ’20′” above is an example of this.

Does this mean that all management expectations must be measurably defined explicitly in advance? Of course not; there is necessarily a lot of give-and-take in the implicit relationships and expectations of a particular organizational culture. But these implicit expectations are behavioral and interpersonal guides, not management goals. Goals by definition must be measurable; that way, you know when you’ve achieved them.

The lesson for managers here is: you need to do the hard work of defining your expectations in a measurable way; if you can’t do that, don’t be surprised if your workers are performing at the level you want. “Do your best” is philosophy, not planning.

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6 thoughts on ““Do Your Best” Is Not A Plan

  1. Performance evaluations are fraught with problems anyway.

    I took MBA classes at Oakland University, which is less than a mile from the old Chrysler HQ. When we talked about performance evaluations in my HR class, we had about a dozen Chrysler managers and employees in my class.

    They had an evaluation system where the manager had to rate all of their employees on a curve. I forgot the exact numbers, but they would have to pick X number of their employees as star performers and they were required to label Y number of employees as poor performers. This caused incredible anguish for the employees and also the managers, especially for the small teams. What if you only had four employees? Which one were you going to pick to get the black mark? What if they all did a good job? Tough. Still have to give someone a black mark.

    Not a great system if you adhere to a Deming style look to the system for source of failures philosophy. To what extent is success or failure is due to the employee or due to the system? That should be also be reflected in goal choice. Deming has some great examples of this problem.

    I worked for a well run manufacturing company that had a goal setting evaluation process. Every six months, there would be an evaluation where goals were set and the last set of goals were evaluated. I think this works pretty good for manufacturing: improve production, less defects, avoid hot end upsets (don’t ask). It works fine in sales, too: get more customers, increase sales, etc. Very measurable.

    However, this is more difficult for support and professional positions. What measurable goals would you set for an accountant? A lawyer? An Engineer? A programmer? Its hard to find good metrics for these types of positions, especially ones so simple and that correlate so directly to company success as production and sales metrics do.

    But, then you get what you measure for. My dad has a great story from when he managed a store for a national chain. They wanted to improve credit collections, so they offered a bonus pool where all the stores that made collection goals took a share of the pool. Since few stores made their numbers, the bonus to the stores that did could get very large. So, my Dad took some very creative and drastic (from the parent company’s standpoint) measures to make sure he made those numbers and got the bonus. Because of the structure of the goal and the accounting, his store made huge bonuses for managing what was a relatively small portfolio of credit from the chain perspective. Probably not what they had in mind when they developed the bonus system. Be careful what you measure for. You may get it.

    Setting goals and performance evaluation is a hard, but interesting topic.

  2. Hi Jeff — I’ve got some “evaluation” observations too. You’re right about “you get what you measure.” That sentiment applies not only to business, but to standardized testing in schools (another soapbox of mine). And you’re right when you say it’s hard: a good manager at least attempts the hard work of defining his expectations, while a good employee recognizes the difficulty of it and provides continuous feedback. Finally, re Deming, the TQM approaches he championed are great examples of the continuous-feedback nature of knowledge workers; for related perspectives, see also Drucker’s essays collected in “Managing in the Next Society”.

  3. “Bolivar Shagnasty”? Sweet Jesus, I just about choked. Good story, though. “The Epistles of Paul to the Blogosphere.”

    In my company, which shall remain nameless, I’ve seen some curious stuff done with performance evaluations. Three years ago I was scored a 4.5/5.0 on my evaluation, but due to budget concerns, I could only be granted the raise of a 3.5/5.0. So my evaluation was knocked down a point.

    Recently, things have been overhauled so that performance has little or nothing to do with getting a raise. You can really only get a noticeable raise if the company is making insane profits. Otherwise, there’s a standard 1.0% upgrade each year just for having a pulse. Last year, upon getting a flawless review, I was awarded a 1.3% raise. And currently the company is bitching about how high the turnover rate is.

    They put out a video recently that showed our VP of Human Resources fielding questions from workers in the field. One woman asked, “If raises aren’t based on merit, why do we bother with performance evaulations anyway?” And for five minutes, the guy dodged the question, while repeatedly praising what a good question it was.

    It’s kind of depressing to be treated like a union worker without any of the cushy health benefits or job security.

  4. I just told a friend, in response to them feeling like they had to constantly do their best, or better in a new job, that it could be solved with one simple response to their team lead: “Hey budy, I’m not superman. I have the ‘leaping over tall buildings’ down, but ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ will have to wait until next week” Minimally their lead will just be confused and walk away.

    On another note, and In response to your article, I’ve decided on a entirely new management system. It is called “Retribution” and works well for both co-worker to co-worker relationships as well as between managers and employees.

    Here’s how it works.

    You build a retribution system (web interface, all that fancy stuff) where you can go in and buy retribution against a co-worker, your manager or a direct report. You select from the menu, say “Remote reboot computer with skull and crossbones screen overlay, maniacal laughter option” and pay the alloted price (retribution points) and go about your merry way. Soon after, the retribution is delivered upon the other employee without them knowing the source. You can giggle on your own time.

    Each employee receives 50 retribution points per month, managers get an additional 10% of their direct report’s points as well so that they can stop with the performance reviews and just fire off a “color their screen pink for a day” or “5 minute anti-nap anoying beeping sound” to get their ‘coaching’ done.

    I can’t see a downside to this model and I’m off to patent it now. No stealing.

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