A business mantra for decades has been “what gets measured gets managed.” Sadly, in some areas over the years, that’s become twisted to focus on the metric and not the behavior or goal underlying the metric. Knowing where we stand and how we’re doing in working toward targets is important, but these metrics must never supersede the original reason for pursuing the target.
Case in point – the news recently has featured several stories of performance metrics gone wrong, one being this particularly egregious story of doctors ensuring their surgical outcomes metrics by avoiding risky patients. If the original goal or target is providing good healthcare to help people live longer, healthier lives, then the metric has certainly supplanted the goal.
Jerry Muller, history professor and author of The Tyranny of Metrics, recently elaborated on this challenge in an article in Aeon.
“The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics, they are incentivized to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, or that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. At the same time, rewarding individuals for measured performance diminishes a sense of common purpose, as well as the social relationships that motivate cooperation and effectiveness. Instead, such rewards promote competition.
“Compelling people in an organization to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown, because the unknown is beyond the measurable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.”
This excerpt shows three reasons why performance metrics can fail, all because the focus of the metrics is on the wrong outcomes.
Ineffective metrics focus on:
- Results instead of behaviors – By focusing on the “what” more than the “how,” traditional performance metrics encourage people to get desired results at any cost. It’s just as important (if not more so) to focus on how those results are achieved – the behaviors demonstrated to get the results. You already know what behaviors your organization has identified as critical to success. They are likely codified in your core values or culture code. Put the emphasis on measuring how, when, and where people are demonstrating those core values, not just the results achieved.
- Process instead of people – Defined, clear processes can be helpful to moving work along more quickly and in an orderly way. However, processes rarely adapt as quickly as the speed of business today. But people do. More importantly, people need the freedom to adapt and respond in the moment. Indeed, this is a critical aspect of what makes work meaningful for humans. Instead of metrics showing how often processes were religiously adhered to, consider metrics showing adaptive responses to meet changing needs.
- Measurable instead of unknowable – Granted, a metric for the unknowable is a bit difficult. That’s why we default to what’s easily measured. Yet the magic happens in the unknowable – the innovation yet to be considered. Metrics around new ideas (ultimately successful or not) can help ensure the unknowable today becomes the innovation of tomorrow.
Performance metrics in the workplace are often the basis for salary increases, promotions, and other indicators of success. It’s time to consider new metrics for how we work today.
What metrics have you seen go wrong? How would you suggest modernizing for the modern workplace?
As Globoforce’s Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting, Derek Irvine is an internationally minded management professional with over 20 years of experience helping global companies set a higher ambition for global strategic employee recognition, leading workshops, strategy meetings and industry sessions around the world. He is a leader in the WorkHuman movement and the co-author of "The Power of Thanks" and his articles on fostering and managing a culture of appreciation through strategic recognition have been published in Businessweek, Workspan and HR Management. Derek splits his time between Dublin and Boston. Follow Derek on Twitter at @DerekIrvine.