Practical Performance Measurement – Stacey Barr

“ Performance measurement shouldn’t be a post-mortem; it should be a health plan.”

Performance measurement (PM) is oft-maligned: organizations see it as useless or a waste of time when they should focus on results. What many miss is that without clear evidence and data on progress, it can be hard to deliver results, or even know when you’ve delivered them. Performance measurement may well be unnecessary when things are going well, but it’s hard to know if they’re going well or not without it.

Stacey Barr developed what she calls PuMP: the Performance Measurement Process, with an extra ‘u’ thrown in to make it easy to pronounce. In the book, she runs through an 8-step pilot to implementing the process in an organization. The method places heavy emphasis on using PM for improvement, not accountability: if you punish people based on what is measured, you’ll end up with useless measures, she points out.

The book is well organized and useful. A few points needed more defense or explanation: her rejection of brainstorming because not all the ideas it produces are good felt more like a PR move than a well-considered argument, and her espousal of XmR graphs as a way of reporting performance seemed overly strong as well. Since the book’s purpose is partly salesmanship for her course, that may play a role.

The key lesson from the book is engagement. Several of the 8 steps in the pilot are about getting buy-in from the organization and ensuring others feel ownership: without engagement, she argues, performance measures will be ignored at best, and more likely rejected out of hand. I suspect she’s right in that: for any process that is that embedded in an organization—including PM but also HR, IT management, and others—if it remains the project of only a few people it will not lead to the culture change necessary to provide results and maximize impact. A lesson more of us could learn.

How to Make Good Teachers – Economist

Are good teachers made or born? Made, says The Economist and an increasing section of the literature, but the public still tends to look for super-teachers rather than train the ones we have in what works.

Early on in humanity’s lifespan, whether you lived or died of a disease was largely in the hands of the heavens. Some people were born with the ability to intercede with the heavens, and they were recognized and elevated early on for their innate talents. They might have extensive knowledge of the theory of how the gods thought and behaved, as well as how they could be convinced to change their minds.

Fast forward, and medicine is more skills-based than theory-based: theory clearly matters, of course, but doctors learn specific techniques that can help improve outcomes and allow patients to recover. Medical schools focus on teaching the concrete details of how the body works and how to treat disease, rather than abstract philosophies about medicine.

Unfortunately, says The Economist, teaching is still in the first state. The overwhelming narrative in education tends to be about accountability; testing and other methods find out how good teachers are, so we can separate the wheat from the chaff. That may have value, but far more useful is to ensure teachers are teaching well, using skills and practices that can be learned. Unfortunately, far too many education degrees focus on abstract theories of pedagogy rather than actually teaching how to teach.

The data highlights how important it is. The things we fight about in public policy – school uniforms, class size, streaming – make effectively no difference to student outcomes. Good teaching, on the other hand, makes all the difference, with good teachers getting students to learn about three times as much material as poor ones. That is the difference between getting 1.5 years of education or 0.5 years each year.

Good teachers ask probing questions of students; assign short writing tasks to check progress and get children thinking; they plan their classes and how to achieve their goals; have classes that are teacher-led but interactive; anticipate errors; and space out the content they cover. Regardless of your theory of teaching, these methods help students learn, in the same way that regardless of your theory of medicine, some practices will help patients recover.

North America has a lot learn from the places that prioritize education, such as Finland, Japan and Singapore. Their systems aren’t perfect either, but we certainly have room for progress.

You can read the full article here.

Wiser – Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie

“In this book, we begin with a simple question: Do groups usually correct individual mistakes? Our simple answer is that they do not. Far too often, groups actually amplify those mistakes.”

If you want to find out how an appellate judge will vote about an ideologically connected case, many of us would check if they were appointed by a republican or democrat. That’s a pretty good predictor. But in many areas, there is an even better predictor: who appointed the other two judges on the panel?

Being in a group affects what decisions we take. That much is clear. But should we take a decision alone or with a group? Both methods seem to work in some situations, and not work in others. In Wiser, Sunstein and Hastie set out to explore the difference.

In general, using a group does two things. It increases the cost of making the decision, because all group members have to be consulted and negotiated with: and it reduces the cost of errors, because it means the group can aggregate wisdom and ideas to minimize expensive mistakes. Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practice, groups can help or hinder. At their worst, they can amplify the errors of some of their members, get trapped in groupthink, become more polarized and extreme without become more correct, and focus only on shared information rather than the key information only some members possess. Perhaps the biggest concern is happy talk: group members go along with the consensus or say nothing is wrong, instead of providing new, sometimes critical, information. Good group design—red teams, giving equal voice to members, and other simple methods—can minimize these costs.

At their best, groups can guess how many jelly beans are in a jar. Groups are good when you need to forecast an unknown result, whether a presidential election or the number of jelly beans: they can aggregate opinions and if everyone is slightly off, the final result can often be very close because the average minimizes the individual errors.

Though Wiser discusses these themes at length, it is short on clear lessons, and indeed the book itself can feel repetitive or meandering. It is an interesting idea, and an important subject, but not as well or as clearly explored as I would have liked, making it hard to distill or learn from.

The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

“We had magic before the crows came…And we understood our magic.  We understood what the orenda implied.”

The orenda is a spiritual energy present in all natural things—humans, animals, plants, rocks, storms. If a hunter did well, his or her orenda was stronger than that of the game: a shaman had great personal orenda.

The Orenda is the story of three people: a Huron warrior; an Iroquois girl captured by the warrior; and a crow, a French missionary sent by his leaders to the Huron village. As the tale of early interaction between Huron and French is told, each of the three struggles wrestles to adapt and accommodate differences, with the two foreigners (Iroquois and French) each forcing the village to change in response to their presence.

Boyden carefully makes his characters complex: none of them are purely good or pure bad, but instead each has their blind spots and flaws. The Orenda takes events that many Canadians may be broadly familiar with and makes them visceral, giving us characters we can empathize with, even understand. The one odd note for me was the detailed descriptions of torture: though I appreciate he wanted to get historical facts right, I found I largely skipped through those sections, particularly after the first one.

The other note he strikes, one which has been controversial, is the issue of roles. He doesn’t paint the First Nations as solely victims: at one point, the narrator asks “what role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” There is a sequence of back-and-forth throughout the novel, as individuals wrong others and are wronged in turn—sometimes they forgive and grow past it, sometimes not.

I read this book in almost one sitting: I’d highly recommend it, though I might also recommend skipping the torture scenes. It won the 2014 Canada Reads Competition.

Winning the Brain Game – Matthew E. May

“I intended this book to be a mindful guide–complete with a super-curated set of battle-tested tools–for using our minds to win the games our brains are hardwired to play on us…this struggle of mind over matter is the brain game.”

When you’re confronted with a problem, is the first thing you do brainstorm solutions? That’s not a bad approach, but you might be able to do better. Winning the Brain Game suggests starting with ‘framestorming’ – before you generate solutions, try to generate as many different frames of the problem as possible, so that you don’t get trapped in one line of thinking.

Winning the Brain Game aims to identify the fatal mental flaws we are subject to, and ways we can overcome them. It is written very much from an applied perspective: May compares himself to a ‘jeweler trying to fix a broken wristwatch, not a philosopher pontificating on time’.

Reframing is May’s solution to the first flaw: leaping to the solution without understanding the problem. He identifies six others: overthinking things, getting fixed on specific ideas, satisficing, focusing on an easier but different problem, rejecting ideas that aren’t our own, and self-censoring. For each, he also presents a mindset that can help us overcome that flaw, giving the book a nice problem-solution structure.

Where the book loses steam is in categorizing the errors. He opens each chapter with a motivating story, and it isn’t always clear how the anecdote supports his point. It’s not a clear a marathon runner who doesn’t know their own limits, and so excels, is an example of someone who refuses to downgrade a problem to make it easier, for example. His categories also sometimes seem to overlap or contradict each other: overthinking is both a flaw and a solution in the sense of using system 2 instead of system 1.

Overall, some compelling examples and nice applied structure, but it could have done with a bit more care in setting out the flaws in thinking, and to catch a few small errors such as mistaken citations – he mistakenly suggests Schwartz conducted the famous jam study on choice, for example, instead of Iyengar and Lepper.

Disclosure: I read the book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Winning the Brain Game.

The New Russia – Mikhail Gorbachev

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.” – Catherine the Great, to Diderot

Gorbachev is a titanic figure in modern history. American stories of victory aside, it takes two to end a war peacefully, and Gorbachev played that role in the USSR. Without him the outcome, though possibly the same in the end, could have been much more violent.

In The New Russia, Gorbachev looks back on Russia’s recent history. His key message is the importance of dialogue and cooperation, the same notes that led to the end of the Cold War. Gradualism and a middle path, he suggests, are fundamental to achieving real, sustainable change, in contrast to the shock therapy in Russia in the 90s, or the Arab Spring today. He also emphasizes the cost to people: he quotes Catherine the Great above as a reason to be careful in making changes, least the changes hurt those who can handle it least.

He issues a clarion call for democracy: one built on the cultural characteristics, traditions, mentality and national character of the relevant nation, but one that also has certain basic features. He highlights regular honest elections, a stable constitutional order, a balance of power between the three orders of government, competition between political parties, respect for basic human rights, a just and impartial legal system, and a developed civil society as essential to a successful democracy, no matter where.

The New Russia underscores one of the fundamental tensions between the US and Russia today. Russia sees itself as a great power, one that should be consulted at every turn: indeed, for most of history it has been. In the last twenty years, however, it has not been, and its pride is deeply wounded. Were positions reversed, and the USA a declining power, I suspect it would feel identically. Unfortunately, this pride and belief in its own exceptionalism leads to a scrabble for power that, even when as in Syria it works, can be enormously costly to the world.

The only weakness for me was the limited discussion of Ukraine and Syria. Having written a book about the need for dialogue and cooperation, Russia’s interventions in both countries appear only at the end, and are not well discussed or analyzed. It would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts on both.

The New Russia is a little longer than it needs to be. Like many politicians, Gorbachev remains wounded by some hurts he took while in power, and he discusses them at more length than necessary, making parts of the book a bit slow. Still, given Russia’s recent surge in activity, a book worth reading.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: The New Russia.

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City – Philip Mansel

“What is left of Aleppo has become a city of bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks. Rubble and rubbish fill the streets…Aleppo had once carried a message: that different races and religions can coexist in the same city.”

When I visited Aleppo ten years ago, its citadel towered over the city, and the souqs below it sprawled in a fascinating adventure. It wasn’t a tourist hub, but perhaps for that reason people were tremendously friendly, as they were across Syria. All of that is effectively gone, and Syria is undergoing a heartbreaking loss of memory. For that reason, books like Aleppo are tremendously timely.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world: humans have lived there since the 5th millennium BC. Standing as it does between the Middle East and Europe, it has served as a cultural melting pot for almost that long, prizing diversity as a means to trade. When one sultan was asked to expel the Jews, he responded that flowers were shown to best advantage when mixed with others of different colours, and refused.

Aleppo focuses on the history of the city under the Ottoman Empire, when it was a major economic hub. Camels and caravans from India, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Erzurum, Damascus, and the Arabian Peninsula stopped at Aleppo before heading to the Mediterranean and Europe, meeting merchants from Venice, England, France, and across Europe going the other way. Lawrence of Arabia would remember it as a place of coexistence, shaped by the civilization that had wheeled around it without being overtaken by them. Today, its population has fallen from two million to less than a quarter of that.

Having introduced the history in its first half, Aleppo’s second half is excerpts of travel diaries from travelers who visited it during the Ottoman period. I found these a bit disappointing, since a number of them are difficult to follow without considerable background knowledge. They do have highlights, however: there is a particularly thoughtful essay by Francis William Newman, younger brother of the future cardinal, and Gertrude Bell’s comments are also very good. The diaries do not shy from detail: one striking passage explains attempts to avoid Aleppo Button, which caused nasty boils, by taking a person already badly infected and taking some of the boil and injecting it into someone as a vaccination.

My favourite part, however, are the Aleppine proverbs the author shares, almost all of them trade-related. If you do business with a dog, you should call him sir; excess is obnoxious, even in religious worship; the piaster equips its owner with seven languages; the greatest blessing is in things concealed from view.

The book isn’t perfect, and its structure can be a bit hard to follow or absorb. It does, however, provide an important reminder of the happy and glorious history Syria has had, and for people interested in the city, it’s a fun and interesting read.

Disclosure: I read Aleppo as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released April 26th.

Simpler: The Future of Government – Cass R. Sunstein

This book is “about how governments can be much better, and do much better, if they make people’s lives easier and get rid of unnecessary complexity.” – Simpler

Regular readers will have noted I haven’t posted for several weeks – my apologies. I have just started a new job, and the adjustment period for getting up to speed has taken some time. It’s been busy! I am hoping to start getting back to a regular review schedule, however.

In the spirit of being busy, however, I thought I’d start with Simpler. The book’s point is an obvious one: we would be better off if the world was a little less complicated, and governments should do their part to help. Where it gets difficult, of course, is in the details.

Simpler opens with the charming story of Sunstein’s first date with Samantha Power, his future wife (and yes, the U.S. ambassador to the UN): when she asked him what his dream job was, he dreamily admitted it was to lead OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the White House. Not everybody’s dream job, but one he would end up having under Obama, overseeing the creation of regulations across government.

The book is a collection of the lessons Sunstein has learned serving in government and approaches he adopted at OIRA to improve regulation, from retrospective analysis to cost-benefit studies. He argues that governments fail to make things simple, whether because they neglect it to focus on other things, because they believe it doesn’t matter, or because they don’t realize that the laws they pass are not, in fact, simple. Adding simplicity can increase compliance, make people’s lives better, and ensure that the best possible policies are passed.

Unfortunately, simplicity is generally an uncontroversial good; the challenge is doing it, not wanting it. As a result, the book spends quite a bit of time discussing nudges, the subject of Sunstein’s last book, and it doesn’t add much to what was written there. I would have preferred more time spent on some of his experiences as head of OIRA trying to simplify, both successes and failures. The elephant in the room is also that many of Obama’s laws are not exactly simple: for all the benefits of the tools he argues for, alone they aren’t enough to enable simplicity.

Sunstein is clearly right. Simplicity is good, and the more we can base policies on evidence the better. If you already believe that, I’m not sure this book will push your understanding farther, and if you don’t, I suspect you won’t read the book. If what you want is a a brief overview of some useful regulatory approaches—experiments, retrospective analysis, cost-benefit, and others—then the book is not a bad place to start, however.

Frederick the Great – Tim Blanning

“He thinks like a philosopher but behaves like a king.” – Rousseau, referring to Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great played music with Bach, corresponded with Voltaire, and took a strong but second rate power—Prussia—and gave it a seat at the top table. During the Seven Years War, he would manage to hold off an alliance of all three great powers of continental Europe (France, Russia, and Austria), defeating and being defeated in turn but maintaining his hold on the rich farmlands of Silesia that provided the wealth Prussia needed.

His achievements are perhaps not as outwardly impressive as Napoleon. But Frederick the Great took a group of territories and managed to unite and hold them against all comers, creating the foundation of the modern German state. During and after his reign, he was both hero-worshipped and denigrated. Perhaps most shockingly to his contemporaries, he was devoutly secular, espousing complete freedom of religion and in his private notes repeatedly mocking religion. He was also likely homosexual, though concrete evidence does not exist either way.

Perhaps his most defining trait, however, was decisiveness, and that trait lay at the heart of his many military successes as well as some of his failures. He dismissed (with Voltaire) German as fit only for peasants and horses, called Rousseau a lunatic, and criticized Shakespeare. He wrote a paper arguing kings should avoid war when possible, and invaded a neighbouring state three months later. He was a complicated monarch, and it takes a deft hand to write his biography.

Blanning’s greatest strength is perhaps is ability to relate the events and ideals of Frederick’s life to more universal ones, not shying from telling a story not just of Frederick, but of fathers and sons, royalty, and officialdom more generally. At those points, the book is excellent, reaching beyond military biography to the personal in his consideration of Frederick’s relationship with his father, for example.

Unfortunately the book can also at times be repetitious and somewhat disorganized. Reaching the end of Frederick’s empire-building by the middle of the book, it loses some of its flow: what interests historians is not always what interests readers, and unfortunately at points the book focuses too much on the former audience and not enough on the latter. Still, a worthy attempt to address what remains a complicated subject.

Disclosure: I read Frederick the Great as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Frederick the Great. It is released March 29th.

Unaccountable – Kevin Page

“At its core, the parliamentary budget officer position as created in 2006 was to be responsible for forecasting the cost of purchases resulting from specific policies.” – Unaccountable

Budget Offices, whether congressional or parliamentary, serve to my mind a very important function. It is too easy for governments to fudge numbers: to take a trite example, the economy is always reported as doing well just before an election, but if another party wins they always conclude that it is actually doing terribly. Budget Offices provide essential analysis that helps support transparency and good decision-making.

Unfortunately, if that’s what you’re interested in, Unaccountable doesn’t add much. It is written almost entirely for partisans, and if you’re interested in economics, public policy, or budget offices, the book offers little in terms of details or facts. It focuses largely on the fact that when the PBO asked for information, the conservative government in power refused them. I’m sure that’s true, but having acknowledged that I would have liked the book to move on, not just repeat the same thing ad nauseam.

Kevin Page is a devoted civil servant and I suspect highly competent—he would have to be to have succeeded as PBO. I was disappointed, therefore, that this book didn’t provide more. He’s clearly very bitter about his experience, and perhaps that has affected his entire worldview. While leading the PBO, for example, he suggested the government intentionally misled Canadians. Though probably true he has no evidence for it, and I suspect making such claims without evidence only costed the PBO credibility. Throughout the book, because he doesn’t come across as unbiased or even self-aware, it’s hard to know how much credibility to give him.

Perhaps the strongest section is the final chapter, where he considers the future of the civil service. Even there, unfortunately, he skirts issues rather than engaging with them though: he argues that civil servants should provide information directly to Canadians, for example, but doesn’t mention how that fits with the Westminster model of a neutral civil service that serves the government of the day.