Putting Out Fires

The most important thing a court manager can do is to communicate what the court should accomplish, what results are desired, and why that’s important – the theory of the court’s “business.” Performance management with effective performance measure and indicators – like those of the National Center for State Court’s CourTools -- that are understandable, broadly applicable, uniformly interpreted, and practical to apply, are a court managers best tool for doing this.

Recently, a court manager described his job to me as putting out fires. He said it consumes most of his time and energies. He said it with pride.

This would be a good thing, but only if he were running a fire department instead of a court system. That would demonstrate clarity and strategic focus. After all, no one would question that putting out fires is “mission critical” for fire departments.

Court leaders and managers must focus – and be seen to focus – on the court’s mission and its fundamental obligations. Saying that you have no job to do until you see the smoke and flames is not leadership. Peter Drucker defined leaders simply as people who have followers. An effective leader gets people together for joint performance.

You don’t get people to follow you when you’re either no place or all over the place fighting fires.

Clarity and strategic focus, and a culture of discipline, are factors of effective leadership and high-performing organizations. An executive who is seen as no more than a crisis manager fails to lead, and the organization suffers. It is seen as driven from one crisis to another, but not toward success.

More and more organizations are putting their faith in performance measurement to facilitate clarity and strategic focus. It provides the framework and discipline for leadership. Performance measures serve to align an organization’s efforts to the achievement of its mission.

Effective performance measures are shorthand -- clear, focused and actionable indicators -- invoking fundamental obligations of an organization, its values and strategic goals.

When a court identifies core performance measures, it communicates a clear, simple and penetrating theory of its “business” – its ideals and purpose -- that informs all decisions and actions. As noted in the last posting, the benefits of an effective court performance measurement and management system are the same as those of strategic planning – accountability, consensus building, focus, coordination, control, learning, communication, hope and inspiration.

To identify the right performance measures, a court must address the same fundamental questions about guiding ideals, values, mission, goals and broad strategies as it must address in strategic planning. Unlike most strategic planning, however, performance measurement and management readily translate strategic goals into strategic thinking and acting.

When a manager quells another crisis of the day or the week, and he says that putting out fires is most important, what is the message that he’s sending?

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