If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures.Musonius Rufus
I find myself speaking more often these days on the concept of accurately understanding the social returns on the investment (ROI) of one’s time and resources. We can only really determine if our lost hours at home and our dollars spent on the newest trends are worth our forfeited time when we understand what we are sacrificing each day to build our future. This framework will apply to both your personal life and your professional endeavors.
You would think this concept would be easy enough to grasp and that we would apply it pretty consistently to our lives. So far, I’ve found that to be largely untrue. Many people jump to the conclusion that I’m asking them to focus on the fiscal costs to either themselves or an organization. They then attempt to alleviate my concerns with a thousand projected metrics of success, savings or earnings. It’s a classic scenario of listening just enough to respond rather than to understand.
First, I kindly smile. Then, I remind them that a projection is still little more than an educated guess. I can pull the last 100 years of weather patterns online in an instant, and I still cannot guarantee if I will see scattered showers in the morning when it’s overcast tonight. While I am always interested in the financial costs incurred today, my real concern is on the intangible costs of any project. That is precisely where we cannot measure success so easily in our personal and professional lives.
The KPI is Dead
I often get blank stares. It seems they don’t teach anything but success by numbers in schools these days—but let’s be honest—the KPI at your workplace is dead. It’s time to do your organization a favor and bury it. More than half of the KPIs I’ve seen in the last decade are actually based on subjective measures—the exact opposite of what a Key Performance Indicator is supposed to represent—but no one seems to notice. It all comes down to the data behind the measurement. What are you really measuring? What’s the story your organization is trying to sell? Data too often is misapplied to tell us a story we want to hear. Thus, the harm from trusting misapplied data continues to bring pain to everyone.
Some Tips for Good Metrics
- Know what you’re measuring.
- Understand how a change in A impacts B.
- Trust, but verify every metric you use.
- If you can’t pull the data yourself and justify the impact, don’t use it.
The Performance Management Conundrum
The reality is that when organizations, schools and families focus on a culture of performance management, they’re most often just looking for a reason to feel good. They end up spending their time and money on every product and practice that promises to improve their lives, grades or performance. They forget to measure what actually drives their positive trends in their excitement to get better. Could it be that it’s their newfound attention alone that’s driving their positive trends and not their investment? Will this trend be temporary or long term when the excitement dies down?
Instead of focusing on understanding what is driving their performance, what I see most often is creative storytelling. People and organizations tell stories that justify their failures. They create excuses. They change the data, add new filters and create new measurements in order to boost an already arbitrary score. They focus on improving a number rather than changing the behaviors needed to drive their performance to the next level.
It’s like asking for extra credit to increase your GPA or giving up pull-ups in favor of doing twice as many pushups, because you lack the current strength to do the first exercise well. You can see the danger here, right? By changing the criteria or adding additional data points, we don’t actually improve our measure of success—instead we just end up changing what we’re measuring. We create vanity scores which, like vanity sizes, obscure the truth.
Honestly, we’re in love with this broken system, because it gives us the power to always slide the scale and to tell whatever story we want others to hear. What happens when the scale can’t be slid into the direction we want? Well, we get creative. Just wait a few weeks. Soon enough, you’ll see a new KPI presented which is touted as better at capturing the reality of the industry, and if we’re talking about our personal lives, just ask someone about their New Year’s Resolution in October. They’ll give you a hundred reasons why a goal was justly abandoned due to insurmountable obstacles or they’ll deflect and share how magnificently successful they have been in other truly wondrous endeavors. Don’t be fooled. Those are just the lies we tell ourselves to feel better about our failures.
Few things change so quickly in a single lifetime that the means of measuring their success also change. Honestly, you wouldn’t expect them to change much at all. Sure, the environment, infrastructure and technology can be greatly altered over time, but how we measure their impact on our lives is pretty stable. We still measure the cost that these changes have on us.
Key Questions to Ask When Metrics Change
- Why would we alter this measurement?
- What was the goal of the proposed change?
- Are we adjusting data to merely improve a score?
- Are we accurately reflecting our performance and challenges?
When we change what we measure, we’re admitting that we made a mistake. We’re saying that whatever we were previously recording wasn’t a key indicator of anything after all. It was a faulty measurement. Are you okay with owning that error? There’s no excuse for ignorance. We must be harsher with ourselves than we are with others to ensure we remain vigilant.
Measurements can be incredibly useful, but only if you know both what you are measuring and the mechanism by which that metric is impactful. Too often, we focus on what’s easy to measure—output, turnaround or sales. We try and force the data to tell us a story we want to hear. Unfortunately, I can’t fix a broken system with one article. What I can do is share some knowledge on how you can be a champion of success in both the workplace and your personal life. You can’t achieve success if you keep changing the goal. That’s why it’s so important to understand how you intend to measure your progress.
- Don’t settle for less and quit the race early.
- It’s okay to struggle.
- It’s okay to fail on your performance measures as long as you learn how to overcome those obstacles.
If you change the goal or adjust how you’ll measure your success, you’re doing yourself a disservice. You’re telling yourself it’s okay to give up. It’s not easy work, but maintaining principles in the face of hardship can become a source of strength. When we finally succeed through persistence, we will find that the time has quickly passed and that the pain from all our struggles is soon forgotten. In the end, all that remains to us is this new person in the mirror and that stronger culture in the workplace. Both are the the result of our resilience and pain along this journey.