Metrics and Managing – Be Careful What and How You Measure

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Metrics and Managing – Be Careful What and How You Measure

One of the time honored, oft repeated (sometimes mindlessly) management mantras is, “What gets measured gets done.” It seems harmless enough on the surface, right? After all, if you visibly go to the trouble of measuring or inspecting a particular method or outcome, the very act of doing so suggests to onlookers that it’s important to you. And, if those onlookers happen to be junior to you in the organization’s food chain, it provides a not so subtle signal that they probably ought to pay attention. And generally, that’s exactly how things play out. Fair enough.

The trouble with that principle is that, because it tends to be such a powerful inducer of behavior, you better be real careful what you are conspicuously measuring, monitoring, and thus encouraging people to do.

One of my early jobs out of college was with a large DP services company. After stints in two regional offices I was moved to headquarters as an HR staff professional. (I guess I had screwed up enough things for them to want to watch me more closely.) As happens with anyone starting a new assignment, in an effort to assimilate and better understand the organization and my new cohorts, I paid pretty careful attention early on to the prevailing norms and habits.

An observation that to this day remains firmly embedded in my mind is the visual memory of the then company C.O.O. making twice daily rounds through the corporate offices (once shortly after 8AM and the other around 4:30PM). He was a very bright, and nice enough guy, but not a very good actor. The purpose of these jaunts was unmistakable – he was taking attendance. Nothing more, nothing less. With his head swiveling left, right, left in order to scan every office, he didn’t stop to speak, socialize, inquire about status on a project, or see if anybody needed anything. No, he was merely calling the roll. In retrospect, I wonder why he didn’t just issue us all timecards.

The net result from that little exercise? People aren’t stupid, and we all made it a point to be physically present for check-in when we were in town. Physically present. I can assure you that no more work got done, and no work got done better because of it. In fact, some of us spent a good bit of time amusing ourselves by placing bets on the over/under of the precise time that he would pass a certain office door. Worse yet, his actions reinforced the premise that merely being present meant more than just about anything else. After all, if the number 2 guy in the company was spending the better part of an hour every day checking up on it, it must have been pretty important, right?

So what’s the point? In the age of ‘big data’, with nearly limitless amounts of cheap computing power available to us, we seem to be reaching the point where absolutely everything is measured, stored, and rendered into analytics. That’s fine until we’re crunching numbers just because we can, and, dazzled by the myriad implied points of emphasis, our people become utterly confused about where we’re going, why their work matters, and what they are supposed to do. In short, we run the risk of feeding people information through a fire hose, just as we have done with email. While you are chewing on that for a second, here are a couple thoughts:

1. Let’s not confuse measuring and processing data with leading. Measure all you want, and use metrics where it makes sense to do so, but leaders still need to lead. Let them. They need to build teams, set direction, focus effort, motivate, reward, make decisions, hold people accountable, and refine business processes by trial and error. Some of those activities depend more on hard data, while others require learned perspective, judgment, and experience. Analytics can tell us a lot about the what, where, when, who, and how. Not so much the why.

Despite achieving a team best winning record in 2013, NBA coach, Lionel Hollins was reportedly shown the door by Memphis Grizzlies management over this exact issue. Without his Heart + Head balanced approach, the team performed nowhere near as well without him this past year. And Hollins just signed with the Brooklyn Nets for a fat raise in pay. Note to Nets opponents – watch out.

2. Share the data with your team, but don’t let your players get lost in it. Test your teammates regularly for their knowledge of the organization’s highest priorities. If they can’t articulate the three highest priorities in their sleep, something has broken down, due quite possibly to an avalanche of you guessed it… data. Oh, and by the way, it’s not their fault, it’s yours.

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