Using Metrics to Clarify

I have a love/hate relationship with measurement. On one level, I can be frustrated by people who demand we measure everything, as if numbers proved the “truth.” Many of the things that are the very most important in life can’t be assigned meaningful numbers, and in our obsession with metrics, we often miss less objective data and make bad decisions or miss opportunities.

On the other hand, my nickname in my cycling community is “Stats.” I actually like numbers, and in my current organization, I’m the one on the management team that likes to sit with the spreadsheets for a while and see what insight I can pull out of the messy data. I think measurement can be a critical part of clarity and learning, so pretending you don’t need data and relying only on intuition doesn’t sound like a good plan to me either.

The key here is clarity. As I’ve said before, data rarely give you the “answers.” They are the beginning of the conversation, not the end. But the good ones will clear things up enough to guide you on a more productive conversation.

For example, look at your employees. What do we measure in terms of performance? I know the answers will be all over the map, but I am guessing that too many of us will answer “not much.” We do our vague, annual performance review, we track attendance, and we keep our eye on big, organization-wide metrics, but that’s about it. Patrick Lencioni talks about this in his book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job. One of the signs is a word he made up: immeasurement.

Immeasurement essentially is an employee’s lack of a clear means of assessing his or her progress or success on the job. This creates ambiguity and a feeling of dependence on a manager to subjectively judge the employee’s daily or weekly or monthly achievement.

To come up with good metrics, however, you need real clarity. We very rarely know what “success on the job” looks like. What does success on the job look like for a meeting planner? Happy participants at the meeting? No, because so much of that is dependent on a lot of people and factors, not just that one meeting planner. That won’t help that meeting planner know, on an ongoing basis, if he is doing his job well. There’s nothing wrong with measuring how happy people are with the meeting, of course, but that’s not the same thing as understanding how one person has “success on the job.” We need more attention on that.

Figuring it out may not be an easy conversation. Both employee and manager might question the metrics the other side comes up with, but remember: neither side alone knows the answer here. Managers will tend to go to “high,” looking at metrics that are beyond the single job, and employees will tend to go too low, focusing only on their own situation. Finding that blend is the key.

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  1. 17.04.2012 at 2:34 pm

    Hi Jamie! I have to admit that I love metrics, too. But you are so right that so many performance-based “metrics” are either immeasurable or tell us little to nothing about job performance. Perhaps that’s why businesses insist on clinging to measurable things like hours in the office, attendance at countless meetings, and endless status reports. Encouraging conversation and collaborative exploration between management and employees is a great start. Perhaps once both sides understand each other better … and, more importantly, achieve a mutual understanding of their shared purpose, better metrics will be forthcoming.