Interview with Peter Ryan, Corporate Strategy and Performance Planner, City of Brisbane until November 2005
Brisbane City Council is Australia’s largest local authority and one of the biggest city administrations in the Southern Hemisphere. This sub-tropical city has an annual budget in excess of A$1.6 billion, over 7,000 employees and is responsible to a population of almost one million residents.
In October 2003 Brisbane City Council was inducted into the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative Hall of Fame, an honor reserved for organizations demonstrating significant results against the criteria of the strategy-focused organization.
How long have you been responsible for facilitating the Balanced Scorecard process within City of Brisbane?
What are your main duties relating to the Balanced Scorecard?
As project manager the brief is end-to-end. I am responsible for coordinating scorecard design, its implementation by strategy teams, and interpretive analysis. It’s my job to take this information to the executive team and to facilitate debate and decision making.
Who do you report to?
I report to the manager, planning and policy branch. The role is also closely connected to the CEO and the executive team.
How did you first get involved with the Balanced Scorecard?
I was looking for a break from line management roles and was particularly keen to get involved with why do we do things rather than simply how we do them. At that time the organization was looking for somebody to manage this new thing called a Balanced Scorecard, so it was an opportunity I jumped at.
What would you say are the key skills required by a scorecard manager/facilitator?
The ideal scorecard manager has a driving commitment to change. They are typically strong persuaders and good tacticians. They can communicate in a compelling way to different audiences and adapt quickly.
Skills such as technical knowledge of scorecard theory, statistical methodology and IT acumen are definitely not as important as this first group of skills. Somebody who has a talent for driving change can learn the technical aspects of scorecard theory, statistics and measurement quickly. The reverse isn’t necessarily true.
Finally, although passion isn’t a skill, it is a prerequisite. Without passion you won’t make it, period.
How did your previous roles prepare you for a scorecard manager’s position? Isn’t it more typical for scorecard responsibility to be given to somebody from functional areas such as finance, HR or total quality?
I had worked on a variety of organizational change initiatives, some to do with community consultation, some to do with citywide planning. This meant a lot of coalface contact and some interesting insights.
It became obvious that it’s difficult to improve how any activity is done unless why it must be done has been sorted out first. This is a weakness in many government agencies and was a useful insight for moving to a more strategic role, trying to provide solutions to frustrations at the frontline.
Although it is wrong to generalize I would say that in most cases HR, finance or IT are not the best contexts from which to launch the scorecard program, however logical this might appear.
One reason for this is that these functions often have a vested interest in their link of the chain. They know it, understand it, are comfortable with it and want to protect it. However, they rarely understand the whole chain or can see the big picture for the organization. And the bigger the organization the more true this is.
These areas often have pre-existing enemies. The last thing the scorecard needs is to inherit criticism on its first day, criticism that is not based in merit but rather on internal politics and history. These areas often lack the clout to get the scorecard started.
Ironically, the worst place to start seems to be the existing performance measurement expert. Many organizations have people who don’t affect organizational behavior but who have a strong measurement slant and produce long lists of KPIs.
A change manager attached directly to the office of the CEO is probably the best place from which to launch a scorecard effort. The scorecard is about strategy, and strategy is just another word for change. It must be understood and located with this in mind.
How were you trained in facilitating a Balanced Scorecard program?
Books and conferences were useful. People coming to the scorecard today need to discriminate carefully, as a lot of consultants have jumped on the bandwagon and not all the available information is good information. This is particularly so for public sector scorecards.
There’s no substitute for experience, so a background in rolling out organizational change initiatives at corporate level is very good training too.
What are the major challenges you face when facilitating the process of building and implementing Balanced Scorecards and how are these overcome?
That’s simple – the status quo is the major challenge. For a lot of people change is terrific, provided it’s in somebody else’s backyard.
There’s a great quote from H.G. Wells which says ‘new and stirring things are belittled, because if they are not belittled the humiliating question arises – why then are you not taking part in them?’
The scorecard needs to be framed in such a way that when something new comes up for their world, people don’t feel they have to belittle it. It’s not a threat, it hasn’t shown them up in some way.
Rolling out the scorecard is not an IT issue or even a management issue, it’s a people issue. So creating something that makes people want to move – rather than forcing movement on them – is the greatest challenge of all. And you must win hearts and minds, or everything dies the moment you stop putting energy in.
To overcome these challenges it helps to think in terms of early, medium and late adopters. One of the strategies we deploy here is to celebrate early adopters really strongly. This gets a lot of the middle group on side quickly and takes away a lot of ground from slow adopters.
Are there other staff members who work with you on the scorecard? If so, what are their duties?
We have a small number of staff that work on the development and co-ordination side and they do training sessions, systems administration, troubleshooting. We’ve found that using facilitators on a rotational basis gives strategy team meetings better structure and focus.
These teams are the ones who actually build and implement strategies throughout the organization and are the most important people of all.
What do you personally enjoy most about working with the Balanced Scorecard?
Watching the organization move and grow. It’s fascinating watching what happens when people have the freedom to create, which only happens when you give them the ability to translate ideas into action.
Understanding the complex reality of cause and effect – knowing which levers actually make a difference at the outcome end and which do not – is also satisfying.
What did City of Brisbane being inducted into the BSCol Hall of Fame mean to you personally and the organization generally?
For me it was a huge honor. The first few years were hard work as there was a lot to learn about what worked and what didn’t work, especially in government scorecards. There wasn’t a great body of work to learn from back in 1997. At that time Brisbane was the largest City in the world implementing the scorecard and it was completely new to me. There was a degree of perseverance involved.
Hall of Fame status was a great honor for the city. We’re growing rapidly and will have another million residents within the next decade, so to successfully roll out the scorecard whilst under pressure to deliver the same (or better) services to a growing population is a good achievement. The award acknowledged the work of a lot of people.
How do you see your role developing over the next 2-3 years?
We need to use the scorecard to better support our partnership and innovation objectives. This is critical to our long-term future.
Understanding the complex trade-offs in running the city is also important. We have a handle on this but it’s complex to portray in a way that everyone can relate to. There are 25 or so high-level outcomes for the City that politically or legislatively we must deliver, but success against one can drive failure against another. You can’t be excellent at everything. Illustrating these trade-offs in ways everyone can understand is a challenge, and we have some interesting ideas on that for next year.
From your own career perspective, how do you think this role will benefit you personally in the longer-term?
There’s no better apprenticeship for going into a leadership role than managing a scorecard rollout. A scorecard manager has to take the back off the clock and figure out how it all fits together. They move away from the slice of pie view to a systems way of thinking. Above all, they learn what works and what doesn’t.
Finally, from your experience what are the critical success factors in succeeding as a Balanced Scorecard manager?
The good ones move quickly and easily from the big picture to operational detail and back again. That is not as common as people think. They are also compelling communicators and have the courage to challenge the status quo.
The best scorecard managers are good at both building support and taking criticism. And they are good at making complex things easy to understand, rather than the other way around.
They re-invent the scorecard every few years with the future in mind. What’s around the corner, and how can the scorecard help? How do I need to adjust?
In short, they think over the horizon, and have strategies for getting there. The best scorecard managers practice what they preach.
Peter Ryan is now Corporate Performance Manager at the City of Christchurch, New Zealand.
James Creelman, along with his co-author David Harvey, wrote a case study on City of Brisbane for their report Developing the Public Sector Scorecard, Business Intelligence, 2004.