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Creating Competition — Without Creating Losers

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.B

By Robert D. Behn
December 21, 2018

When the executives of a large organization decide to use competition to drive performance, they are usually employing (if only implicitly) a sports metaphor.

The organization has already been divided into multiple subunits. This permits top executives to compare the results produced by these “teams” and thus to identify the best performers (and, by default, the worst).

Indeed, if the managers of every “team” has such comparative data, many may already be competing, if only in their own minds. After all, some of them believe they are hot-shot managers. Yet, a self-anointed hot shot who is producing fewer results than some colleagues confronts an imperative to improve.

Moreover, the organization’s executives do not want just one subunit to be successful. They want every subunit to win.

Yet what is “winning”? Perhaps different managers have created different scoring systems, each selecting a metric that puts his or her own team on top.

Thus, the organization’s executives need to create a form of competition that focuses on the organization’s true purpose — that motivates each team to produce the results that achieve this purpose. In crafting this competition, the executives need to make three decisions.

First, what exactly counts as a point — as an accomplishment? If the organization is responsible for producing low-income housing, is that each subunit’s task ? If so, a team could earn a point for every housing unit it makes happen — either directly by building it or indirectly by helping a for-profit or nonprofit organization to do so.

But is every housing unit worth the same number of points? Or should each team earn a point for each eligible person it moves into a low-income housing unit?

Second, what should be the organization’s overall target? How many units should it seek to produce? Or how many low-income people should it seek to house?

Third, how should this overall target be divided among the subunits? Does the organization give each team the same target? Or are some housing units to be built in a region that needs more low-income housing?

If so, should the target for this region be higher? If some subunits have bigger targets, they also need proportionally more resources. For the competition to be fair, the overall target needs to be divided among the subunits in a way that every team believes it has a fair chance of winning.

Once the executives have decided how to keep score, they need to define how a subunit “wins.” The usual approach — again based on the sports metaphor — is to make the team with the top score the winner.

But if the public objective is to create housing for low-income families, it is not a mere game. The overall results are important. Neither people in the organization nor citizens seek to celebrate only one winner, with the remaining teams becoming demoralized losers. To achieve the purpose, every team must hit its target.

Moreover, if only one subunit can win the prize, will the managers of this high-performing team explain their strategy to their colleagues? If they do, another team might win the next “prize.” This prize might be nothing more than bragging rights. Or it could be something significant: tickets for every member of the winning team to a Red Sox game.

Also — besides the cultural imperialism of the sports metaphor — what limits the organization to having only one team win? Don’t the top executives want every team to hit its performance target? Don’t citizens want every team to “win”?

If so, why reward only one team? Why not reward every team that does hit its own target?

This is still competition. The teams are not, however, competing against each other. Each team is competing against its own goal. If one team hits its own target, it wins. Yet, it is also possible for other teams to win. In fact, every team could win.

This “competition” lacks, however, any motive for sabotage. No team benefits from undermining the progress of another team. That’s why it is called “friendly competition.” The top performing team still gets bragging rights. Indeed, the organization’s executives create a forum for bragging by asking successful teams to explain their strategy to their colleagues.

Will a “winning” team do so? They have no reason not to. For, in the next round of competition, their ability to win is not undercut by the improved performance of another team. Moreover, when the executives ask a top performing team to make such a presentation, the executives are dramatizing — and rewarding — this team’s accomplishments.

Will the teams that failed to make their targets pay attention? Sure. For if the advice that they are offered is understandable and practical, these teams will learn how to move into the winning column.

Will any of these teams fail to make their targets? Maybe. Still, no team is prevented from winning because another team does. All each team need do is to hit its own target.

Certainly, this is competition. But it is not cut-throat competition. Every team is competing against its own target. It is “friendly competition.” Every team has a chance to win.


Author: Robert D. Behn is a lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and chairs the School’s executive-education program “Driving Government Performance: Leadership Strategies that Produce Results.” He writes the on-line monthly, Bob Behn’s Performance Leadership Report, and focuses his research and teaching on the challenge of improving the performance of public agencies. Bob’s most recent book is The PerformanceStat Potential (Brookings).

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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