Settling the “Gotcha PerformanceStat” Debate

Gotcha is a word that often unsettles many managers in performance management programs. For the most part, managers get frightened about anything performance if there is a gotcha connotation. People who are less favorable of “strict” and collective accountability practices often dismiss the value of Stat programs. They would easily agree with Norman Vincent Peale’s words in his book, the Power of Positive Thinking “We’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” But is gotcha all about criticisms? There are always two sides to a coin: obverse and reverse. Two sides to almost every scenario. If our innate binary characterization of most phenomena hold true, then it could be argued that there are two sides (risks and benefits) to gotcha as well. Although the risks of gotcha have often gained tremendous attention, the benefits have been blatantly ignored. Before we dig into the pros and cons, let’s attempt to understand gotcha.

What Is Gotcha?

Gotcha by definition is an unpleasant surprise, attempting to expose underperformance or poor management. Gotcha implies someone is after you and you have to figure out how to avoid being caught. The purpose of gotcha stat is to encourage a high-level preparation to improve performance. Before gotcha stat meetings, executives familiarize themselves with the data and operations of the relevant department. This might include work records, reports, and input from others who are conversant with the work of the leadership of the relevant department or agency. In most cases, before the Stat meeting, the Stat analyst prepares notes for the city’s executive team identifying issues and data of critical concern to be discussed at the meeting. Often, this information-gathering process happens without the leadership of the concerned department knowing what conclusions are being drawn. In the “no surprises” model, PerformancesSat representatives of the relevant department make an appearance at the Stat meeting and are furnished with the questions ahead of time. Learn more about the two different models of PerformanceStat from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Government Excellence’s “Gotcha vs. No Surprises” chapter in the Performance-Management Getting Started Guide.

Source of the Gotcha Debate

Bob Behn, an authority on government performance and public management eloquently summarizes the gotcha debate this way: “When creating a PerformanceStat, some try to avoid playing gotcha by circulating all of the data, analyses, and questions. But this does not motivate subunits to analyze their own data. And it constrains an executive’s ability to evaluate managers.” Those who support the idea of circulating questions to managers before the Stat meeting (the “no surprises approach”) argue that it reduces the anxiety of managers resulting in productive performance meeting. They maintain that if the agency knew the questions that they would be asked, they could prepare themselves better. This they claim will help eliminate uncertainties, fear, and reduce the potential confrontation that usually characterize gotcha meeting. Those who are less favorable of gotcha note that the phenomenon humiliates managers before their subordinates and it lowers their morale to improve performance and discourages them from taking risk to innovate.  At the center of those arguments are the notion that gotcha delays feedback for managers to improve performance and it over focuses on what managers are doing wrong. Adding to the concern about gotcha were the scenes from the TV series The Wire, set in Baltimore, showing fictional administrators often terrified at the podium being grilled on their data during Stat meetings.

Balancing Gotcha Concerns with its Benefits

With continuing budget constraints and limited resources coupled with increasing service requests from city residents, the benefits of gotcha cannot be overlooked. A well-run Stat program significantly improves the performance and service delivery and enhances government efficiency and effectiveness. Though cities may differ from each other in a variety of ways, the questions about being effective with resources are the same. For example, who is responsible for what? Who follows up to make sure what got done? When are results expected? How can departments achieve results in the most efficient way? The claimed negative side effects of gotcha may be justified, but there are several counterbalancing benefits to gotcha that have longed been ignored:

  1. Gotcha encourages managers to adequately prepare for the Stat meetings.

“The best preparation for tomorrow is to do today’s work superbly well,” said Sir William Osler. The knowledge that managers will be publicly quizzed about their responsibilities requires them to adequately and continuously prepare. Not knowing the questions that will be asked require thoughtful and adequate preparations. Not only does this enforce an attitude of self-checks and hard work , but it also promotes self-accountability and proactivity. Managers become aware that there is no room for complacency and adequate preparation is the only key to avoid potential embarrassment at the Stat meeting.

  1. Gotcha encourages managers of subunits to thoroughly analyze their own data.

The chief executive’s leadership team probably already received an analysis of the data relevant to the manager’s department and will require them to speak to the data. Managers can sufficiently address matters that may arise therein only if they properly collected and analyzed  their own data. Demonstrating a lack of knowledge about their agency’s performance could expose them to perceptions that they are not doing their job well. Before the meeting, managers examine and analyze their data, discover trends and new patterns, and identify areas where resources and attention may be necessary.

  1. Gotcha makes it easy to identify performing and non-performing managers.

Identifying non-performing managers can be tricky, especially when little or no independent checks are conducted to verify claims from their departments. Managers are expected to meet the goals of their department within allowable timeframes, budget, and resources. During the Stat meeting, the chief executive’s leadership team can easily identify or deduce performance deficits from how managers respond to the analysis and data from their own departments. Since the analysis and questions are not distributed to managers before the meeting, it often becomes apparent which agencies are meeting expectations, achieving targets, and delivering results. It becomes necessary for executives to explain carefully and follow up with subunit managers on how they could improve their work.

  1. Gotcha reveals areas for improvement which otherwise might be difficult to uncover.

Collecting and analyzing the data that pertains to the relevant department appearing at the Stat meeting is an effective “x-ray” tool for executives to gain a comprehensive insight into the operations of the department. It is effective for assessing and understanding the status of the department’s progress toward achieving its objectives while discovering areas for improvement.

  1. Gotcha motivates improved supervision.

At the meeting, executives expect managers to respond to the data that will be presented as well as all matters arising from your agency. Managers are expected to take full responsibility for the successes and failures of their departments. With this knowledge, managers are motivated to ensure that subordinates do what is expected of them in the interest of the department.

  1. Gotcha promotes collective accountability.

Agencies, departments, or subunits can only succeed if everyone does their work well. As a manager, your part is to link consequences to collective results and help subordinates do their job effectively. Agencies succeed with collective accountability. Managers cannot succeed if subordinates focus only on their personal goals rather than the overall department success. Managers must bear ultimate responsibility for their department. Therefore, it is imperative for managers to consult broadly with their staff and others whose collaboration may be necessary to meet targets of the agency.

  1. Gotcha enables managers to keep track and update their own data.

Keeping track and updating information is important to monitor progress toward city goals. This is necessary to assess whether the department’s operations are yielding efficient outcomes for residents, and understand which programs are producing desired outcomes, and what changes need to be made. Data-driven decisions should be based on accurate information hence, managers are motivated to keep track and update their data.

  1. Gotcha broadens the scope of issues to be discussed during the Stat meeting and considers topics which otherwise would have been overlooked.

Sticking to the predefined scope of issues and questions tend to constrain matters that could be important for discussions during the meeting. A wide array of issues that concern the participating department can be discussed. This is necessary for managers to  thoroughly address performance challenges that may have been overlooked.

  1. Gotcha motivates managers to regularly scrutinize their approach in identifying creative solutions to persistent problems.

Managers utilize time and resources to deal with problems that their agencies confront. In most cases during the PerformanceStat meeting, the chief executive’s leadership team will stop at nothing to determine whether managers are making judicious use of the limited resources or wasting them on the same problems over time. Being aware of the potential line of questioning managers are encouraged to invest time and effort in evaluating their approach towards identifying innovative ways to solving persistent problems permanently.

  1. Gotcha motivates managers to focus more on results and less on the  

During the meeting, the executive team would want to find out how managers are producing results but most importantly the outcomes managers are achieving. One of the key ways to understand how managers are doing is by considering outcome metrics.  To appear at the meeting with confidence  managers are encouraged to discover the appropriate metrics that focus on expected outcomes.

Re-embracing Gotcha to Achieve Real Results

Effective PerformanceStat meetings achieve a variety of goals. They provide executives with operational updates, reveal deficiencies, highlight opportunities for improvements, create a system of accountability, promote efficiency, and improve service delivery. These are the goals that must drive the meeting. The focus should be on what the city needs to do to achieve its objective of delivering quality services to its residents in the most efficient and effective way. Improving performance of agencies is all about exploring alternatives that could eliminate and mitigate the deficiencies existing in the system. There may certainly be excuses to justify why the “no surprises approach” is preferred to gotcha, but the question that remains unanswered is whether agencies have so far been effective with that model. For agencies fatigued with a “business as usual approach,” it is valuable to adapt strategies in order  to accelerate progress and service delivery – this is where embracing gotcha becomes imperative. The pains of gotcha may be a concern, but the gains are enormously rewarding to achieve the desired results,  improve performance and make significant progress towards city goals. Think Goals! Think Gotcha!