If you're like us, you tend to have limited expectations for the usefulness of material you are going to glean from your standard, run-of-the-mill conference and trade show. After all, the speakers are trying to appeal to the widest available audience and end up presenting material that has great theoretical value but can be much harder to apply to your particular business environment.

However, while recently attending the Gartner CRM Summit in Phoenix, one of the speakers made one of those "throwaway" comments during his presentation that stuck with us throughout the remainder of the track sessions. The comment was that most of the inquiries he receives from his clients start out with the statement, "We're trying to do the same thing as..." When we heard this, we just turned to each other and smiled - we've heard that same comment so many times as we speak to customers and prospects about performance management that we instantly knew we had our column for this month as well as some insight and information to pass along to those of you getting started on a performance management project.

Now don't get us wrong, trying to emulate a leader or trendsetter is by and large a good thing. Anyone who is a "Good to Great" or "Built to Last" aficionado can attest to the fact that pegging yourself to a Proctor and Gamble or General Electric can pay significant dividends in the long run. And on many levels, it's a very solid, if conservative, strategy for moving forward in trying to improve your organization's performance. You gain the benefit of the other company's hindsight, understand what mistakes they made and avoid the "first timer" pitfalls, and are able to use an example of success in order to drive your project forward with your employees and management team.

There are countless examples of where this strategy can work. After all, the last thing you should be worrying about in business is whether or not your idea is an original one as long as it works. Who could deny that JetBlue has benefited from understanding and emulating the Southwest Airlines business model? Was Google the first Internet search engine to generate revenue on Internet advertising? Of course not - they were actually one of the last! And the U.S. Post Office was delivering packages around the world long before the business case for FedEx was written over two decades ago back in a business school class.

The issue is not that you shouldn't pick out a company or companies to emulate as you strive for performance management improvements. However, it's important to understand the reasons why these emulating companies - JetBlue, Google, FedEx - were successful. It wasn't because they said, "We want to do what Southwest, Yahoo and the Post Office are doing." Now did they want to achieve the same results or surpass these other organizations? Of course. But there was a strategic difference that these companies all kept in mind as they started their projects. They had their own vision for how they wanted their business to run and did not rely on their model companies as the primary reference point to ensure their own success.

It's hard to understate how important the whole "vision thing" - to quote a former leader of the free world - is to achieving your performance management goals. Too often, as we work with companies, their presentations start out with whom they want to be "like" as a result of implementing a dashboard or scorecard. They've read in Harvard Business Review or been to a conference like the Gartner show here in Phoenix and seen a case study from a company who is achieving exactly what they want from their project. Calls are made, information is exchanged, the performance management strategy is written, and all that's left is the implementin'.

But - and this is a big but - it is in setting the vision that the success of your performance management project is often won or lost. It's not inherently a bad thing to use GE or FedEx as an example of best practices that you'd like to implement within your company - heck, Six Sigmas for everyone! And if you're having difficulties getting started or understanding what the final product looks like, you can't go wrong in pegging yourself to someone who's done this stuff successfully.

However, our view is that emulating others should be a derived aspect of your performance management vision - not what ultimately drives it. Understand what you want to accomplish with your project. What does the end state look like? What are the performance gains you want to achieve? Can you quantify those gains? Do you have agreement and buy-in on these measurements from the key players in your company? Good. Now, and only now, make the call to your trusty industry analyst and find out how others have done this and see how they did it. Find out what worked, what didn't, what they did that you would not, what their biggest hurdles were, what mistakes they made - everything that helps your project run more smoothly, keeping in mind that your goal is not to be the next Google if what you do is manufacture widgets. You need to stay true to your business, your strengths, your goals - and not theirs.

OK, we admit that this point should be as obvious to you as the nose on your face. But sometimes the most obvious points can easily be lost in all the morass and bureaucracy of our daily routines. And what could be more obvious then saying you need a "vision" in order for performance management to be a success? But after hearing the Gartner speaker validate a point we hear over and over, we thought that advising you to avoid the trap of being a "me too" company by first developing a vision for your performance management strategy was a point worth making one more time.

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