When the University of Lincoln considered their current performance management processes through the eyes of their academic managers, it provided valuable insights. Liz Lacey explains how blending two different approaches helped to inform a review of the way performance planning is carried out by academic leads.
At Lincoln, as in most HE institutions, the focus on performance management has never been greater, with an ever-increasing flow of externally and internally driven metrics, and often it seems that heads of school are in the centre of this maelstrom of performance data.
A few years ago the university moved away from the appointment of heads of school on a rotational basis and chose to establish a permanent group of leadership roles at this level. With this move came increased opportunities to nurture a relationship with them that further builds and develops a sense of partnership and collaboration. In this context we set off to further explore their experience of planning and performance management processes.
In their 2014 research into performance management, the Leadership Foundation concluded that institutions were likely to need hybrid performance management methods, blending directive with more enabling and stewardship approaches. In an external environment where the organisation’s performance is measured at every turn it can be challenging to achieve a balance between delivering effective management and performance monitoring mechanisms at senior levels, whilst retaining a sense of ownership by those that are essential to delivering performance improvements on the ground.
The project sought to create this balance by using two different approaches. It applies design thinking with the directive principles of the balanced scorecard to evaluate the planning processes.
The balanced scorecard approach, since its development by Kaplan and Norton has been widely used in the private sector but is still to make a significant impact in the HE Sector. The model provides clear principles for effective directive performance management mechanisms. These principles include creating clear alignment between individual goals and the strategic aims of the organisation; ensuring that plans take account of managing and monitoring a balanced perspective of factors that contribute to and lead to success, not just monitoring the ‘bottom line’; and that performance management processes are considered holistically. This approach provides a useful framework by which to assess current practices.
The other part of the approach, ‘Design Thinking’, is essentially human centred, starting with the human need, exploring what experiences we want people to have and challenging us to ask what would make their life easier. The concept, initially developed by Tim Brown, CEO of the innovation and design firm IDEO, is summarised in his 2009 Ted Talk.
Design thinking gave clarity about the aim of the project, which was not only to review practices in the light of the balanced scorecard’s directive principles, but to do this through understanding the experience of our heads of school, and to set out a clear project aim to improve that experience. As a consequence, the central focus of the review became the question:
“If heads of school are at the heart of delivering organisational performance, what does the planning framework need to deliver?”
Drawn from a coaching tradition, embedded within this question is the empowering assumption that heads of school are pivotal in delivering improved performance outcomes on the ground, and as strategic leaders for their areas any planning framework must support them to do this.
Servants to processes
As part of our review we viewed various practices through how they were collectively experienced by heads of school. We quickly saw that performance management processes are owned by various stakeholders and, in some instances, this was imbued with a sense that heads of school were somehow the servants of these multiple processes rather than served by them.
Another theme that came to the surface was duplication of effort, with clear opportunities to improve heads of school’s experience by unifying action planning processes. In some instances the plans that came out of the performance review processes had no predetermined structure, and rather than being perceived as freeing and enabling for heads of school, they were instead experienced as time consuming and ‘reinventing the wheel’.
The lack of predefined structures for action planning also made it more challenging to create and communicate explicit alignment between actions and overall strategic objectives, although heads of school were clear these existed and could provide a level of interpretation. The current structure was also seen as contributing to an imbalance between short-term and longer term action planning. And finally, the predominance of outcome measures, with less focus on likely predictive measures, emerged as a key theme.
Unified planning framework
The outcome of the work so far is an initial design for a unified planning framework for heads of school, providing a single framework for all action planning activity. There is also a rolling plan that will offer a holding place for both short and longer term planning, offering explicit alignment between action plans at school level and organisational goals, in order to help staff to articulate and understand how collective efforts support the wider strategy. The framework will start to help heads of school to navigate the performance information that is available to them, with document libraries for the latest reports.
The work has not been without challenges. These have included the sheer volume of stakeholders to be consulted and the timing of the work alongside the development of the university’s new strategic plan, which inevitably needs to shape the planning processes for schools.
The next step will be to develop the planning tool in a time frame that aligns with the launch and roll out of the new strategic plan. And of course, as with the first phase, it will be vital not to lose sight that this next development phase must continue to put the experience of heads of school at its heart.
Liz Lacey is HR transformation manager at the University of Lincoln. You can email her for more information about the project.
The Innovation and Transformation Fund (ITF), supported by the Leadership Foundation and Hefce, stimulates projects to unlock and share good practice in order to advance efficiency and transformation across the higher education sector. The nine projects for 2014, focusing on engaging the higher education workforce in process review, performance and career management and development, are nearing completion and will be shared over the next few months.