Comparing Apples and Oranges … And Learning from It

In his latest Public Management Report, Bob Behn argues that we have more to learn from dissimilar organizations than from ones that are very much like ours. He presents a powerful counterargument to a reason often raised for not doing comparative performance measurement – i.e., efforts that focus on a court’s performance in relation to that of other courts. The reason goes something like this: What we do, and the environment in which we operate, are so unique that we can’t be compared with other courts. And, because no two courts and no two jurisdictions are the same, any comparisons would be like comparing apples and oranges. We can only learn from courts that are exactly like us. End of discussion.

This is a “brilliantly convenient excuse,” says Behn. Managers believe that nothing that they are not already doing works; and if it does, it must mean that the circumstances in which it works must be “weird.” So why bother even trying to learn from “them.” Whatever they might be doing would never work for us because we’re unique and they are different.

Behn turns this apples vs. oranges argument against comparative performance measurement on its head. He acknowledges that no two organizational circumstances are alike. Therefore, he writes, all learning must come from dissimilar situations. This learning is not easy. It requires objective analysis, “the ability to look beyond the specifics of a situation to understand the underlying principles.” To do the hard work of learning, you have to separate the real innovation, the core idea, from the clutter of “weird” organizational factors, deviant personalities, and strange politics.

For court managers, Behn’s lesson is important. Courts shouldn’t hide behind their differences. The reasons for poor performance may, in fact, lie in those differences. Those differences should be confronted and exploited to identify strategies for improvement. Moreover, comparisons should not stop at courts but extend to other public agencies and even private companies. For example, courts are not the only organizations required to manage front-counter services for large numbers of “customers.” If a court can effectively benchmark its customer service performance against that of the state department of motor vehicles, or even Target, why worry about how different the court is from these organizations?

See also:

“How Do we Stack Up Against Other Courts? The Challenges of Comparative Performance Measurement,” The Court Manager, Vol. 19, No.4 (Winter 2004-2005)

Eight Reasons Not To Measure Court Performance, Made2Measure, April 5, 2006

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