Recently I had the honour of playing as goalkeeper for a team in the 2018 ASEAN Futsal Club Championship in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where we placed second, the best result of an Australian team ever in that tournament. This was an incredible result for a completely amateur side competing against professional teams from more developed futsal nations. Without dismissing the group of highly talented and driven players I had the pleasure of playing with, this result, in part, was due to our coach.

I have played in numerous elite teams, and it becomes quite evident when a coach takes a different teaching style. I realised that many of the concepts that he taught us could also be applied to my professional life, and in particular, designing business intelligence (BI) systems.

Our training program was not focused on technical skills – our training sessions were more geared towards tactical movements and players were allowed the creativity to do something with the ball

‘I don’t care if you make a technical error’

In many elite teams, minimising technical errors (for example, a bad pass, losing the ball to the opposition, missing a tackle, and on) is a key focus, particularly when coaching defensive principles. The reason for this is pretty simple: more technical errors means more goals conceded, which means less chance of winning. While this seems intuitive, we forget that focusing too strongly on technical issues comes at a cost.

Players may make bad decisions, but technical errors are just plain old mistakes. When we punish mistakes, players lose confidence which often leads to more mistakes or poor decision making. This also means players lose creativity. They do what they are told to minimise technical errors – mistakes. But adults have a very low chance of improving their technical ability substantially, as this is developed over years of training as a child.

However, in our professional lives, we manage with the aim of minimising mistakes, because mistakes mean rework, low efficiency and drags on the business. We do not encourage creativity; we encourage process, efficiency and “doing what you are told”. Having a tolerance for mistakes is the only way to innovate in a professional setting, yet when we design BI systems we measure efficiency levels, how far away we are from budget, and how many sales we made (or did not make).

These systems expose mistakes, meaning employees are just as demotivated as futsal players to innovate, and instead they just “follow the process” to minimise errors.

‘Players can only control their performance, not their result’

In sport as in business, we measure results, not performance. We care about results in sport – results are trophies, medals, prize money, singing after the game, and basically everything that makes us want to show up again next week. It is the same in business: results mean bonuses, profit, recognition from stakeholders, and potential promotion opportunities. These are things we care about, but we actually cannot control them.

In the final of the ASEAN futsal club championships, we played Bangkok BTS FC, one of the top teams in Thailand, home to one of the major professional leagues in Asia. Playing futsal is the Bangkok BTS players’ full-time job. We were amateurs, not even semi-professional. We have to pay to play, train, catch flights, and we even have to pay for our uniforms. The only thing we had going for us was our dedication to the sport we love. We played as well as we could in the final, but we still lost.

Our performance was good, it was just not as good as our opposition’s. Yet in BI systems we only rarely measure performance (inputs), instead regularly measuring only outputs.

The organisational consultant Simon Sinek recently did a TED talk about empathy in business and used the example of the employee “Bill”, who has been missing his sales targets.

“Hey Bill, your numbers are down for the third quarter in a row,” Bill’s manager tells him.

“If this continues, there may not be a place for you in the company any more.”

Sinek stresses the idea of empathy, which I believe in as a pillar of a good workplace, but let’s dissect this example. Bill’s numbers are down, but his manager has not discussed his performance in any constructive way.

Does the sales dashboard include any measures of performance? Probably not.

Has Bill attended all of his sales meetings? Followed up with all of his prospects? Maybe there is a regulatory issue specific to his clients?

Who knows (and who cares) his numbers are down? Managing output is important but ensuring all of your sales reps meet their numbers for the quarter is just as important.

What does this mean for us?

When we build a BI system, we need to be very care about how using the system will influence human behaviour. Are we aiming to limit mistakes? Yes, but not at the cost of encouraging employees to innovate and improve the business. The objective of BI systems is to improve the way the business operates, but it is easy to fall into traps of measuring output and efficiency rather than input and innovation.

BI systems built well provide employees with information to make better decisions and create a business environment where employees can test ideas and learn from them, rather than blindly following a hunch and hoping for the best.

Understanding the output of your business is critical to any company. However, too many businesses fall into the trap of focusing solely on outputs rather than a combination of inputs and outputs. Tracking inputs as well as outputs allows businesses to promote healthy performance behaviour rather than create unnecessary stress and tension for employees.