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Metrics That Matter In Times Of Transition

By Curt Steinhorst – Speaker on Strategic Communications & Digital Distractions

What you measure, you reward. If you’re still rating systems and employees by what worked in 2019, it’s a good time to re-evaluate, particularly in a hybrid era where effective metrics are a critical ingredient for measuring and incentivizing remote work.

The Metrics Conundrum

When we measure something — anything — it gives us the illusion of certitude. Our brains love certainty because it’s part of our hard-wired survival mechanism; certainty enables us to predict or avoid threats. In modern business, we derive that certainty from metrics and KPIs.

But in changing times, when the known is in flux, metrics must change. Because it’s hard to know what to measure, and for how long, we sometimes give up and measure whatever we can quantify. Unfortunately, that approach to metrics often creates as many problems as it aims to solve, such as employee frustration, disengagement, and unnecessary or unproductive work.

That’s why caving in the face of this challenge is always a mistake because it doesn’t lead to what’s most important.

For example, it creates these common traps that, as a leader, you’ll want to avoid:

  • Measuring what doesn’t relate to outcomes. “Easy” metrics give more weight to time or motion than to results. Avoid this pitfall by focusing on the one or two metrics that are most critical to producing the best outcome.
  • Too many meetings and too much reporting. No one likes to work an unpaid hour of overtime to make up for the hour they wasted reporting on what they did that day. It’s better to build visible, automated KPIs into the primary technology used to do the work and find asynchronous alternatives to meetings.
  • Establishing metrics that aren’t clearly tied to the company’s mission and values. This is a signal that your company is counting for counting’s sake — or that the company’s stated mission is too vague or vapid to matter. (Read more about values here.)
  • KPIs and other metrics are established without employee input and participation. People dislike being told how to do their jobs by those with little or no experience in that role. That’s why top-down or HR-driven metrics often become a recipe for employee resistance. 

“Not everything that can be counted counts. Not everything that counts can be counted.”

William B Cameron, Informal Sociology

Certainty vs. Clarity

Times of calm provide high levels of certainty, and we become accustomed to it. That’s why, in times of turbulence, we might instinctually cling to our comforting old metrics – but again, that’s a mistake because, during disruption or transition, clarity is more important (and more obtainable) than certainty.

We don’t get more certainty by establishing more metrics; we get it by establishing more clarity. And clarity comes from a company’s central purpose — its mission, values, and long-term goals.

Great leaders understand this and know that by providing clarity about results, and releasing their grip on metrics that no longer apply, they enable their workforce to find new and better ways of accomplishing what the company needs to achieve. Clarity frees your people to discover more efficient, productive solutions, especially if they are not penalized by outdated performance metrics when they use their initiative.

Measuring What Matters

It’s important to remember that KPIs are not goals in themselves. They are simply indicators, like road signs. But no road sign is more important than the ultimate destination; and similarly, no indicator matters more than a positive end result.

Let me give you two real-world illustrations.

Employees of Company A, a consumer goods company, have shifted to working from home. The company wants to keep its employees engaged, so it evaluates and rewards its managers based on holding daily staff meetings with a high percentage of attendance by their team members.

However, team members are frustrated by these meetings that interrupt their workflow and could easily be handled via email or Slack. They feel staff meetings aren’t needed more than two or three times a month. But managers continue to hold mandatory daily meetings because their compensation is tied to those metrics, even though the result promotes frustration and lowers productivity. This is an example of a well-intended metric gone awry.

Company B is in the software business with an opportunity to land a large contract if they can convert 100,000 proprietary records into a new format. The Operations VP assigned the task to a team with the mandate to convert 10,000 records per week, consistent with their current capacity. 

At the end of Week 1, the VP asked the manager in charge how many records had been converted. The manager replied, “None yet, but we’ve got this.” At the end of Week 2, the VP asked again, “How many records have been converted?” and the manager reported, “All of them.” How? The manager – an experienced, senior person – ignored the weekly metric and, instead, spent ten days writing a new program to handle the entire conversion more efficiently.

The difference between these two cases is that managers at Company A focused on satisfying metrics, while the manager at Company B focused on improving results. However, in both cases, their leaders set up a conflict between metrics and outcomes by giving more weight to quantifiable events than to excellent productivity.

How to Evaluate Metrics

In setting metrics for employees, it’s a leader’s role to do three things:

  1. Ensure that KPIs and milestones emphasize the outcome, not the means.
  2. Tie metrics to the company’s mission and values.
  3. Collaborate with those who are being measured when setting metrics.

To aid with this, here are some questions for leaders to ask about existing metrics and the weight their company gives them.

  • Does each metric directly relate to the outcome needed now, or is it part of a how-to recipe that worked in earlier times?
  • Could your organization benefit if its people were free to improve or innovate traditional processes? Could you enable their initiative by removing constraining metrics?
  • Is your company using measures to reward what can be quantified rather than incentivizing worthwhile results? Are there so many metrics that they obscure clarity?
  • Do your company’s metrics embrace/advance remote worker productivity? Or is the business holding onto metrics that work when everyone is in one place?
  • Do the organization’s metrics inform and guide the decisions of its employees and leadership? Do they allow room for employees to add their expert judgment?
  • Do your company’s mission and values drive its metrics? Or do its metrics have an independent life of their own?

Wrapping Up

Whatever your company measures, it will reward, so it’s important to measure the right things. As managers, we seek the certainty of metrics because our brains are predisposed to certainty as part of our human survival toolkit. But in times of transition, when much is unknown, clarity is more important. Clarity is driven by purpose, values, and end results, which are not as easily quantified, thus making some organizations uncomfortable. However, it is essential to establish clarity for your workforce by reassessing metrics of the past that do not directly contribute to the results and values an organization needs in transitional times.

About Curt Steinhorst

Focus expert Curt Steinhorst helps leaders and teams take control of their attention and focus it on what matters most for their success. By applying the science of how the brain works to the reality of how we function in today’s hyper-connected world, Curt provides actionable insights that help leaders break through the noise, achieve greater innovation and performance, and get the important work done.

To learn more about Curt Steinhorst contact [email protected]

Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency  www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]