Chasing work chaos: When everything is a “priority,” nothing truly is

I had been blogging consistently about three years in 2016, when I had a post on poor priority management finally kinda “pop” online. Before that, I had a few other things do well, but usually on other platforms, like LinkedIn or Medium. This was one of the first ones that “blew up” (relative term, also why is that a good thing for something to do semantically?) on my site. I’ve written about priority management a couple of different times since — this is a good one on personal alignment, IMHO — and it’s got a soft spot in my heart. I mean, what else is work aside from attempting to effectively manage the priorities of different people, accounts, and the like?

Well, this morning my friend texted me. She’s at a four-day all-hands meeting, mostly virtual. (COVID!) The last time I went to one of these dog and pony shows, in 2018, was in Kansas City. I saw an old sales guy named Gary almost get beheaded by his SVP in a hotel ballroom. I had a lot of beers. I think I might have seen a Chiefs player on the street. All in all, it was an interesting trip. I gained nothing professionally from it.

So my friend is at hers this morning, and texts me that their SVP of Sales just introduced 22 — yes, twenty-two — KPIs for 2021 for the sales team. 22 KPIs. I broadly understand that many KPIs are meaningless lip service, but it’s nearly impossible to track 22 things. Most human beings can barely get through a to-do list of 5–10 items. You want me to chase 22 tennis balls around across a year to prove I’m a valuable employee? Especially in sales, which is the most-eminently trackable department aside from maybe Ops?

I posted a short version of this on LinkedIn, and because LinkedIn is basically just a mix of failed sales guys and aspiring failed sales guys, I got some reactions to it. One person asked, “Why does this happen?”

Here’s my theory.

Relevance: On the side of the sales SVP, he is establishing relevance. He has lots of ways to control and monitor his people now, which keeps him relevant to his bosses, the one tier above him. Relevance is very important to the psychology of work.

Control: On the SVP side, this is a form of control. We all know 22 KPIs won’t be effectively tracked, and what will happen is that “gut feel” and sheer numbers — revenue generated — will be used to evaluate his sales team a year from now. But, the sheer presence of 22 KPIs means that if there is one guy you don’t like, i.e. Gary above, you have 22 options to fuck him over. Gary could hit on 18 of the 22 KPIs, but because most humans can’t hit 22 KPIs, he’ll fail on 4. And you can use those four to force him out. Now you have control, and control is also very important to work.

Chaos: On the employee side, this essentially creates chaos. The sales guys that the SVP likes are fine — they keep doing their thing. The other sales guys chase their tail trying to hit these KPIs, and lose key deals and relationships in the process. The metrics become more important than the outcome, which is not good. Meanwhile, there’s all sorts of support staff, admins, marketing team members, and the like who are now creating stuff for these 22 KPIs and tracking them and having meetings about them, and because it’s all largely being done in the name of control and relevance, no one is getting clear answers, so now there’s chaos in other departments and units too.

In short, then = the path to relevance and control (human needs/desires, especially at work) creates a burning building of chaos all around those 22 KPIs, and in the end, we will find ourselves a year later simply evaluating the sales bros on how much they brought in. And meanwhile everyone who swirled in that chaos will be a year older, gone from the company, or wondering why they’re not yet gone — no closer to a house, a new kid, or whatever they really want, and instead just chasing late-night emails and Slack messages that they can barely remember three days later.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the road to supposed data-driven productivity is also paved with something … those being a need for relevance, a longing from control, and an all-consuming chaos of tasks, calls, emails, meetings, and confusion.

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