I am fascinated by the ‘unmeasurable’.
Not being easy to measure has become an accepted excuse for not paying much attention to. Yet, in any conversation with individuals, they ‘assess’ their work-life, home-life, social-life, primarily on the unmeasurables: it is how it feels, and how they feel within the system that determines whether they are positive or negative about it, passionate or apathetic.
So, although we call this the ‘soft stuff’, the unmeasurable, we use it as our own primary form of assessment!! The obvious conclusion is that we are perfectly capable of measuring these things; it is just a different form of measurement from the hard measures.
We have been told, over the years, that our feelings are an inaccurate and subjective form of assessment, swayed by all sorts of personal biases. This is true, in scientific terms. Yet our feelings are undeniably what lead us into passionate commitment to and into withdrawal from, situations, relationships and life in general!
Since organisations are a living system, essentially composed of human beings, it seems only logical to assess them on the basis of the ‘feel’ of the place as an important part of the assessment of their potential effectiveness. And although feelings may be subjective and inaccurate, on an individual basis, there is nonetheless a general consensus – which means feeling together – about what an organisation is like to work for, which suggests to me that we can establish some clear measures, some obvious distinctions. It requires that we ask people in organisations some different questions, so that we can identify what makes them want to give of their best and provide the oil in the machinery that enables it to work effectively.
It has become standard practice to measure performance in organisations. However, the principle of assessing our progress has become somewhat perverted by the use of the word measurement or, even worse, metrics. The implication of these words is that they measure things which are specific, factual and objectively provable. This has led to a tendency to measure what can be easily demonstrated rather than to measure what matters. This then leads to a culture of doing things to meet targets or objectives rather than doing them in the right way. Examples abound of how this leads to good results against the measure, but an overall decline in the service or long-term outcomes: reduced costs in purchasing, but poorer quality in the product; reduced waiting times for hospital appointments for those with minor problems, but limited availability of treatment for serious problems; most trains on time, but some cancelled so that delay targets are met, etc.
THE ARGUMENT FOR METRICS
Despite the evidence that metrics alone don’t enhance the performance of people, except in a limited way, they persist in being the most common form of measurement in organisations. Why is this?
Firstly, there is an underlying belief that people are not to be trusted, and need driving on and checking, to make sure they achieve. This produces targets, numbers, as a form of control.
Secondly, the scientific approach has led us to a belief that any measures must be objective, factual: ‘ The numbers don’t lie’.
Thirdly, being a people-oriented organisation, or being a profitable organisation were historically seen as alternatives, not a combination. We divided organisations into profit or non-profit, and saw those non-profit organisations as inefficient and ‘soft’. In fact, many of those in the public sector have been pushed to be more business-like, not in addition to their caring, but to the detriment of it.
COMMON SENSE MEASUREMENT
In fact, there are very few of us who use metrics to assess our own progress when we are reflecting on it. We measure our own progress by our emotional state, our relationships with others, our ability to deal with problems that come up, and the belief that we are developing. For me this is clearly demonstrated in eulogies when we die: most emphasise these aspects of us, not how much money we made or how efficient we were at clearing our in-boxes!
Similarly as customers we assess organisations by how responsive they are to us, how well we are treated as customers, and what it feels like to have contact with them. When we work there, we assess them primarily on the basis of the atmosphere, the way people work together, the level to which we feel valued as an employee, and the approach the leadership team takes to achieving the results they want.
Results matter – if the organisation is failing to achieve results, our service or product is at risk, and our jobs! They are just far from being the only measures, or even the most important. In fact, enlightened leaders realise that the results are a by-product of achieving the other categories of outcomes, not the drivers.
SO HOW DO WE MEASURE EFFECTIVELY?
The argument that measures for the full range of outcomes are subjective not factual still exists. Yet despite some different perceptions, subjective assessments tend to give a consensus of opinion, and the different perceptions serve to highlight particular aspects of good or bad practice. We use these forms of measurement – it’s time we formally recognised their importance.
WHY DON’T WE USE THEM MORE EFFECTIVELY?
One of the problems with these measures is not that they don’t exist; it is that they are not given the same weight as the results. This is because we view the numbers as being both objective and prevalent. So if an organisation’s results are not as good as in the last quarter, the common reaction is to cut staff numbers and/or staff development, both of which result in a reduction of people’s loyalty and enthusiasm, not an increase!
Even if the results stay at a reasonable level, many organisations do not know what to do to make a difference if their staff and customer surveys reflect dissatisfaction with the organisation. They tend to treat the symptoms of dissatisfaction, not the causes: complaints about waiting times on phones leads to an increase of pressure on call centre staff to answer phones more quickly by cutting short the conversations they have with customers; staff saying their managers don’t listen to them leads to compulsory 1:1’s with staff every fortnight. Reactions like these do not lead to better results in surveys: customers then complain about not being listened to; staff still complain about their managers not listening.
If we want to turn our vision for our organisation into reality, we need to clearly measure the things that make the difference, that we want as outcomes, rather than just the results. This is not difficult, it is common-sense. It just requires us to recognise the measures we all actually use to assess our individual progress, other people, and organisations we work in and have contact with as customers.
Isn’t it time we measured the right things instead of the easy things, and moved our organisations to a new level of effectiveness?