Measurement and Metrics, a Cautionary Tale

In my last post, I talked briefly about measurement. I related a common management saying that goes something like this, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t tell if you are improving.” I don’t know who said it so I went trying to research and find out. Fascinatingly, I never did find the actual original author of the quote, but what I found instead was several cautionary tales against overly relying on measurement in terms of management.

This is something I agree with, and in fact, I have my own saying about that:

People’s behavior will be driven by the metrics they are measured by.

When it comes down to it, in many organizations most people are ultimately concerned with their job performance and career development. They want the next raise, bonus, promotion. And this means that they are looking to just do what it takes for that goal, which means doing the things that have the visibility or the recognition for their promotion or raise. As a manager and leader, long experience says it’s probably futile to try and change that, so instead embrace it and use it.

Make sure what you are measuring ties back to your goals and vision

What is your goal? Your true goal? For example, you might say something like, “We are more interested in customer satisfaction than in higher sales”. So you should follow that goal, and measure the customer satisfaction scores that your team gets.

Think about the actual behaviors that these metrics will drive

Frequently I see managers say things like the above, but then measure the team’s performance on…revenue and sales. If you do that, what do you think will happen? If you measure revenue, then that’s what you’ll get. Your team will do everything they can to maximize sales.

When my wife worked at a call center while she was in college, her manager talked a lot about customer satisfaction, but the metrics she was measured most on were call volume and length of individual calls. With those metrics being measured, the outcome was exactly what you’d expect; call center employees would do everything they can to make the calls as short as possible, even if customer problems were not solved.

Be aware of how people will use these metrics

In fact, it can be even worse than that. There’s a famous story that goes around about a company that wanted to improve the quality of their source code. So they instituted a “bug bounty” program, where every bug that a developer found and fixed in the code would get them a $5 bonus. The results of this were exactly what you’d expect…some developers “found” a LOT of bugs, and ended up with huge bonus checks.

I wouldn’t expect that your employees would be unethical, but I am saying that you need to be aware of unintended consequences and behaviors from the metrics that you gather.

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Metrics are important and valuable tools for managers and leaders, to ensure your organization is moving in the right direction and improvement. But be mindful of overusing them as ways to measure the performance of your team members, because the behaviors you encourage may not be aligned with the results you truly seek.

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