Performance Bonfire

“Performance management feels like something that is done to us – with no benefit for us”

We need the courage to create, permission to innovate and feel like it is ok to fail – above all reward curiosity.”

Chris Bruce, from the Joint Improvement Team, blogs for us about our the first event of the Fire Starter Festival, a ‘Performance Bonfire’, which arose out of a feeling that we need to show what could work as a ‘Scottish Approach to ‘performance’.

We received gifts in relation to both words in the title:

  • A performance is something we put on, for ourselves and others, it isn’t necessarily real.
  • A bonfire was originally a bone fire. These were perhaps a necessity when ‘full’ burial grounds were cleared to make way for future generations. Another hint came from the suggestion that dinosaur bones give us a sense of what the creatures were like, but the whole beast remains a mystery.

So, last Monday, 25 volunteers from across public services came together to share thoughts on our experience of the Scottish system of performance management – and to use an Appreciative Inquiry approach to surface clues for improving on what we have just now.

“We need to get to the point where empowered staff/services are able to identify and test change in a dynamic post Christie world – behaviours and approaches consistent with this and we’re all involved.”

Where are we now?

spag junction
Image credit: The Highways Agency

Using pictures as prompts, we talked about what we see and feel now. There was a sense of a Scottish Approach needing a new way of understanding how we are ‘performing’: as individuals, communities and systems. One person said that the current framework was like spaghetti junction: “the designers thought it made sense; when you are in the middle of it, not so much”.  Looking ahead, someone else remarked on a picture of two cogs interlocking and asked “can we mesh well, it’s a good feeling when there are relationships and information links well”.

Where might we want to be?

We used the four Ds – Discover, Dream, Design (based on the work of David Cooperrider) to structure our conversations in groups of five people, coming back together in plenary to consider Destiny and what we might do next.  This approach seeks to unearth our very best experiences and draw out common themes to build on in imagining a better future.

Lots of clues emerged.  Here are some favourites:

  • We need to think about layers, beginning with self, system and society. With appropriate feedback at each one.
  • A rebalancing between assurance and improvement through greater levels of trust.
  • Does the role of central government also need to be about giving people more space and expand the pool of innovation? New powers for Scotland create new opportunities for innovation on performance measurement, e.g. to reflect the values increasingly dominant in the Scottish Approach to public service design and delivery, such as place making, whole person and user perspective.
  • Establish a culture around our values – building personal performance, recruitment, supervision around values in my organisation.
  • Ambition and big aims – BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) which are understood and supported. Switch from targets to setting problems to solve, goals and outcomes.
  • Decisions are emotional not logical – use stories – power of stories/narrative.
  • People are put at the heart – both citizens and staff.
  • Focus more on partnership performance and shared outcomes (not on individual performance – always done as part of an organisation or wider system) we need to know how to work in teams better – emotional intelligence.
  • Develop the skills for helpful conversations that enable feedback.

Now what?

The group were keen to know how serious the Scottish Government is to try out different approaches to understanding how we are performing and how we tell that story.  We undertook to ask the Performance Board about this.

We also felt a couple of cracks opening where we might focus further work: one is the recent ambitious changes to procurement legislation, another, the notion of ‘freeing up’ an area or locality from the existing performance requirements and asking them what they would want to tell their community and the rest of Scotland about their performance.

There may be Enabling Collaborative Leadership test sites which choose to focus on performance during 2016/17.

Several of the best practice examples that were shared on the day are being written up or tested already. We can continue to learn from them.

Everyone present agreed to share contact details, and consider further collaborative action.

Chris Bruce.




  1. Belated thanks for this post, and the reporting/reflecting on the Performance Bonfire. It is encouraging me to go back to my notes on the session… Lots of inspiration and provocation were on stage, in play – with the performers being privileged. It was indeed a grand bonfire, that allowed us to burn off a lot of angst around conventional performance management systems – clearing away some obfuscatory undergrowth, and clearing the way for some new incarnating. I think we are on the cusp of harnessing the energy from the fire along innovatory lines… synergy was being generated.

    For example, I had some good complementary experiences the next day at the Dangerous Ideas cafe, (hosted by Keira and Angie and Leslie). Found myself recalling/noticing a lot of ‘improvement’ focus in people’s job descriptions… trying to transcend ‘performance’ perhaps. Reminding me of a late 18th/early 19th century ‘improvement/improving’ movement in Scotland – then mainly in relation to Scottish agriculture… possibly a spinoff from the (first?) Scottish Enlightenment. ‘Improvers’ were ‘leading-edgers’ then…

    Maybe today’s ‘improvement’ focus is heralding the next enlightenment…in a broader societal context – improving the otherwise problematic ‘divide’ situations we heard about in U Lab. Perhaps today’s ‘performers’ need to be viewed as agents of that next enlightenment… performers as life-long learners, with the capacity, and conviction (and will) to lead themselves first (self-leadership), to transform personally, before attempting to help facilitate a broader transformation – in their communities and workplaces.

    In terms of further considering the ‘putting on a performance’ aspect, I was definitely one sensing something along the lines of a duality of sorts – performing on a stage, for an audience, on the outside, while being more ‘transforming-oriented’ on the inside (for myself, this could be grounded in some ‘praxis-making’ and ‘ethos-making’ work, which are dimensions of what I call ‘professional-self design’… and which could also be contributors to a more ‘creative bureaucracy’ movement, which I have heard Charles Landry trying to address).

    I think I am also thinking in ‘beyond-system’ terms… i.e. not only a system context, but also a culture context… performers in a system being also makers of a culture… valuing inner experience as much as outer behaviour. The system is performer-privileging, the performer is a ‘performer-in-transformation’ – a transformer (this leads me to an interest in the essence of transformance, transformency, and transformativity… but this discussion is probably for another day).

    I have benefited considerably from insights derived from trying to apply what may be termed more integral framings (I have been trying to tease out applications of Ken Wilber’s integral theory in particular). This has me very interested – in integrity terms – in supporting an individual’s integrated-ness on their inside, and integration-ability on the outside… a form of joint missioning, or comissioning, or co-mission-ing. This needs some larger framing – some higher goals. In a Scottish context we can possibly begin with the inscription of values on the Scottish mace: Wisdom, Justice, Compassion and Integrity (and Courage, if the designer had had the room to fit this in as well).

    I like these values, and am interested in where/how they get built in to ‘systems’ such as performance management systems, They might serve as an orienting aspiration, an integrated consideration of all the values, in a quintessentially Scottish ‘generalist’ manner, being very careful not to be unduly reductionist. How can these values best be enacted today, with ‘enacting’ implying that bodies, minds and souls would be mobilised, in service beyond self? Our collective behaviour might manifest practical wisdom; integrity would underpin our personal/individual ethos; justice would permeate our social intercourse; with compassion as our highest collective ideal…. all wrapped in Courage. I could get dreamy, wondering what spirit might be distilled from such a glorious blend!?

    My notes indicate that more was coming up for me at the ‘bonfire’, but this is probably enough for now… perhaps I’ll offer another post, ideally after I see what other comments may get posted.

  2. Hi… I’ve had an idea…

    I left the performance bonfire asking myself where there might be clues about better ways of doing ‘performance management’ than we currently seem to have.

    How could ‘Performance 2.0’ enable greater wellbeing in the process of doing the measurement?

    Could our experience of ‘Performance 2.0’ leave us energised and inspired rather than distressed and cold?

    What kind of questions would Performance 2.0 ask that would lead to such an experience?

    A few days later, I was reading about some recent work published by Tom Crompton at Common Cause Foundation (See his latest report – Perceptions Matter – here:

    Tom’s research has led him to be interested in why people tell surveys that most of us value ‘intrinsic’ things (like friendship, trust and community) over ‘extrinsic’ things like the stuff we own.

    And yet our view of ourselves tends to be very different from our views of others (we tend to see others as being more selfish, for example, than we consider ourselves to be).

    I think Tom might be on to something important. Intrinsic values are the stuff of fairness, resilient people and communities, a socially and ecologically just society – the things that government is attempting to support.

    Yet are we as a country, or in communities or regions, actually tracking whether intrinsic values are on the up or not? What would happen if we did?

    Could this be one way to help us see whether the sum total of public services actually moving us to a fairer, healthier, more socially enterprising and ecologically resilient Scotland? Could having up-front conversations about the values we aspire to in ourselves and that we see in others help galvanise the invention of better public services more in tune with unlocking the assets in places and people?

    Could this be one way to balance out powerful other messages in the media and elsewhere that might stop us from believing that most people would prefer to connect rather than feel lonely; would rather lend a caring hand than look the other way; would rather pull together in tough times than split apart?

    In the spirit of ‘just do something’ I’ve decided to act on my hunch there’s something in this – and to invite Tom to tell us more about the way he does his research, and join a conversation about whether it could offer a piece of the bigger puzzle that we started in the performance bonfire session…

    Let me know if you’d like to be in the loop.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: