Measurement Madness

There is a well-known saying that “what gets measured gets managed”.  Depending on your source, it was first said by either physicist Lord kelvin, or Peter Drucker.

It’s generally true. After all, if you plan to run a marathon, you start by finding out what distance you can run right now. That’s the starting point.  To make sure you can finish the marathon, you figure out how many miles you must run every week between now and the race. And you track your progress. So yes, you manage what you measure. If you do it vigilantly, you will likely cross the finish line!

If reading takes too long, Watch this 2 minute video instead!

The Score

Measurements are the scoreboard. That’s true whether you’re running, or measuring a company’s expansion of staff, or sales revenue. But keeping track of your running mileage is not the same as running. And when you set out to do a 5-mile run, the action isn’t happening on your Garmin GPS or on your mileage spreadsheet.  It’s happening as your feet hit the ground, your breathing quickens and as sweat beads on your forehead. The scoreboard is not the activity it tracks.

But, in today’s age of big data, we are obsessed with measurement. You can see it everywhere. Body hackers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are measuring every function: Breathing, pulse, sleep quality and time, body fat, bloodwork, hormones, exact dietary detail and yes, much more.

Data Hunger

The same thing is happening in organizations. They are amassing metrics for every aspect of business. The number of new measurements is vast and growing. There are Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), Objectives and Key results (OKRs), sales metrics, functional performance metrics, individual milestones, digital measurements like impressions, hits, web traffic, lead generation and conversions. And of course, there are balanced scorecards which measure every aspect of long-term and medium-term strategy. There are so many more that I could use this entire article just to list them.

Tech businesses are data hungry. But, so are tele-sales companies, fashion manufacturers, warehouses, importers, and fleet managers. This preoccupation with measurement can miss a fundamental point. If companies are measuring everything to the nth degree, teams and individuals may lose sight of the work and become consumed with the metrics.

The Game vs. The Score

Imagine a soccer team in the World Cup quarter finals. But, as you watch, you notice they are fixated on the scoreboard and checking it every few seconds. The game grinds to a halt. The players’ focus, attention, skills, and tactics have receded into the background. They are moving their feet and bodies, but the ball is irrelevant or at least evasive. Soccer has ceased to be soccer.

Just as soccer players must concentrate on their game, so must employees focus on their work. We expect employees to perform. We hope they will be fully engaged and passionate about their work. Ironically, we try to measure that. But, when we inundate people in metrics, they become consumed with hitting milestones, goals, and numbers. Their eyes wander toward the scoreboard and away from the game.

The game is their work, not their results. Their results – as measured — are the scoreboard.

Metrics and performance are not the same thing. In this age of data, we have conflated them. (Tweet This)

Doing the Job

Employees are consumed with succeeding at the metrics –or perhaps more frequently– consumed with possibly failing at them.

Even when they aren’t trying to hit targets, they are actively measuring, doing entry of relevant data, having meetings to review their “numbers” and attempting to develop their performance in service of hitting quantitative goals.

This isn’t just conceptual.

One of my client companies is a very high-growth start-up in the biotech industry. Other than the physicians and scientists on staff, most of their hires come from analytic backgrounds. Even the marketing lead worked at a big-5 consulting firm and the CEO was in finance. They have groomed the company to be as data rich as possible. They measure everything.

Having worked with them on the development of their strategy I am intimately familiar with the source of their balanced scorecard. A scorecard is meant to be balanced insofar as it measures the KEY initiatives on the strategy and then looks at the interim results of those projects.

Strategy or Surveillance?

But since we developed the scorecard, they have added OKRs and KPIs as adjuncts to the strategy. These aren’t just for the overall company but for each team. They have also drilled down to add team measurements of aggregate and individual performance. Individuals are assessed on both their component competencies in their jobs but also their progress across a range of specific skills including communication, leadership and management behaviors. HR measures employee growth as well as assessing management and 360° feedback.

Moreover, all initiatives have multiple measurements of their progress and the aspects of the projects considered to be leading and lagging indicators.

We mustn’t forget the function-specific metrics: sales pipeline measurements, engineering sprint and roadmap planning, digital engagement, retention and lead generation.

Finally, because the company is in biotech, there are also compliance and regulatory issues to measure and manage.

With this deluge of metrics and the level of attention and data input required to populate all the scorecards, intranets, SaaS platforms and HR instruments, employees claim that they spend upward of 15% of their total working time attending to these issues. That’s the quantitative investment they must make in measurement-related activities.

But we don’t know how much attention, concern and distraction they experience striving to fulfill the standards and standing up to constant examination. They are being judged, quantified, and assessed from every possible perspective.

Going back to the soccer game we looked at earlier – how much time and energy can an employee spend playing the game if they are preoccupied with scoreboards and stats.

Einstein had a sign outside his Princeton office that said: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

Are all these measurements necessary? Are they helpful? Being preoccupied with data can become an obsessive pastime for executive leaders. But analyzing statistics is not a leader’s highest value. Nor is it an employee’s best use of time.

Paring measurements into the fewest data points necessary to understand progress matters. Many of the other measurements that so many organizations use could be better observed by human interaction. Managers should not spend their time aggregating and analyzing tables and charts. They should be coaching and developing their teams –holding individuals to account for progress and results. Yes, it is possible to measure all of those phenomena. But the scoreboard will never be able to play the game –nor will a massive scoreboard cause better results.


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