Stop Drowning in Metrics. Measure What Matters.

Not Everything that Counts can be Counted.

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Photo by Charles on Unsplash

“What gets measured gets managed,” wrote Peter Drucker, describing management’s well-demonstrated tendency to follow a shiny object, regardless of what it is. And while Drucker’s logic is sound, we’ve somehow extrapolated it to the point of uselessness.

If we manage what we measure, then typical business thinking dictates that we should just measure everything. Nothing will go unnoticed or unmanaged. How could such foolproof reasoning ever steer us wrong?

Don’t believe me? How many metrics does your company manage? And how many of them mean anything to the average employee? Better yet, how many of them actually lead to a change in operations? As the old saying goes, a difference isn’t a difference unless it makes a difference.

Our personal lives aren’t much better. We track how many steps we take, how many stairs we climb, how many calories we eat, how many carbs we eat, how much we work, how much we sleep, how many books we read, how many words we write, and how many claps, likes, upvotes, retweets, comments, and death threats we collect on a daily basis.

I even have a friendly green owl that hassles me each day on how many new Mandarin topics I’ve practiced. Not that it convinces me to open up the app and practice — but it does interrupt my focus at least once each day.

As data becomes more accessible, it’s never been easier to measure, track, and trend whatever strikes our fancy. We’ve gone from measuring what we want to manage to measuring anything that’s measurable.

Which can be a good thing. As long as we don’t want to accomplish anything meaningful.

It’s important to remember that managers don’t do any work themselves. As people are promoted through an organization, they transition from accomplishing work themselves to accomplishing it through others. The higher someone’s promoted, the more this is true — often they’ve forgotten how to even do the very work they oversee.

And yet, they’re still held accountable for all of the results. So they quickly realize that setting metrics and monitoring trends is an easy way to push this accountability down the line. It even lets them feel like they’re doing something again! After all, monitoring numbers is tedious enough to qualify as work.

All of which becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. We create measurements. We focus in that area. We show progress. We get a shot of dopamine and are motivated to do more.

But what happens when we add ten more metrics to the list? And ten more after that? What happens when those people who do the work — remember them — spend all of their time chasing metrics? How quickly before we lose focus on anything that isn’t tied to a number?

And instead of our metrics working for us, we end up working for them.

Abraham Maslow once said, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.” If our main tool for productivity is metrics, it’s easy to lose sight of all those parts of life that can’t be easily be quantified into a measurement.

It’s easy to measure delivery performance, but much more difficult to recognize whether we’re instilling the appropriate culture in those around us. It’s easy to track clicks, but much tougher to understand whether we’re making a real impact on people. It’s easy to measure short-term profits, but understanding whether we’re developing a company that will survive the long-term is less straight-forward.

Our personal lives are no different. We track books read, but not how much we learn. We track steps we take, but not the amount of quality time we spend with our loved ones. We track social media metrics and prioritize the fickle opinions of random strangers over our own desire to put out work that we know is high quality.

While Drucker’s words ring true, the inverse — “that you can’t manage what you can’t measure” — couldn’t be further from the truth. The majority of what we need to manage every day cannot be measured. Our most important contributions — developing relationships, encouraging positive culture, making tough decisions in the face of adversity, coaching and mentoring others — are things that don’t lend themselves to numbers on a dashboard. As Albert Einstein put it,

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

As 2020 gets started, and everyone’s liquored up on new resolutions, commitments, and strategies, there’s no better time to ask — are our metrics still working for us?

It’s easy to fall into the analytics trap. They offer a sense of control that’s reassuring amidst the daily craziness. But each metric is also a constraint. Each measurement exerts a cost on our attention. Each reminder is a commitment for our time.

And in a changing world, where agility is paramount, constraints are anathema to our success.

How do you want to make an impact this year? What are your key priorities for 2020? And which metrics are the ones that will keep you on that track?

Measure what you need. Evaluate what you measure. And stay focused on driving your efforts towards the areas that will have the biggest impact.

There are very few universal constraints. Only make those that are going to work for you.

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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