More Metrics Madness


Another good post, and thanks to Eric, Jamie and Darren for the great comments.  This is a big and deep topic Jason, and we are indeed in agreement on this:

about the kind of work that needs to be done in organizations.  We need more love, courage and passion in our workplaces.  We are on a quest to set talent free and to help organizations be more authentic.  This is not in question.  The topic on the table is what role measurement plays when we do this work.

And maybe I do not think that measurement is evil…measurement is a tool after all, so it boils down to how you use it.  But this is what I do believe:

one:  We over-prioritize things that come with metrics.

two:  We have told ourselves some great lies about what we can measure.

three:  The outcome of  our use of metrics is often evil.


Business has a pathological relationship with metrics.  Let me use the mother of all metrics, profit, to make the point.  In your post, you say

Most of the organizations we work for exist ultimately to produce profit.

This belief (which you are not even allowed to question in the world of business) is at the very core of why the organizational lifespan is so short, it is at the very core of why for so many people The Office and Dilbert hit a little too close to home, it is at the very core of the current economic dysfunction in this country.  It is also why so much of the craft and joy and self expression has been stripped out of our places of work.  Profit is ridiculously measurable, but it is also the great purpose killer.  Idolization of profit kills purpose and it also kills honesty.  There are a lot of organizations that have wonderful mission statements, vision statements and core values.  They often include things like value, service, people, passion and inclusion.  But those same organizations never actually talk about those things in the meetings that matter….they talk about the numbers.  They have in most cases completely lost the ability to talk about those things that matter most.

These organizations are inherently dishonest as they do something very different than what they say they do, and behind that dishonesty they have chosen a poor purpose.  Before someone tries to give me a Business 101 lecture, let me say that I do understand the importance of profit.  I am a business owner myself…I get it.  But the purpose of my business is not profit. I work, at least partly, because I need to make a living, but I do the particular work that I do for reasons that have nothing to do with profit.  Profit is mandatory, I am not in any way confused about that, but saying that an organizations exists for the purpose of profit is kind of like saying that the purpose of a persons life is breathing (which also can be measured quite well by the way).

Just because something is important or even mandatory, does not mean that it is automatically a purpose.

When is the last time that you were in a senior leadership team meeting where love, truth, creativity or courage were the prime agenda items?  Probably about never.  We say they are important, but we do not even know how to talk about those things.  Metrics give us a very convenient justification for over-prioritizing things that can be directly measured.  We have come to accept the idea that what gets measured matters. I would say that in the 21st century,  those things that can be directly measured are of almost no strategic value (thought they may be important or even mandatory) and the intangibles (which cannot be directly measured) have infinite strategic value.  We are poorly positioned to take advantage of this new terrain, in our understanding of what matters, in our organizational design and in our ideas of leadership…and this is where our work lies.

At the root of this is the unquestioned value of another false idol that you mention in your post…

I’m assuming that even you would agree that when you do work that aims at making a workplace more authentic, you should be able to tell if you are making progress.  If we aren’t making progress, then why do the work.  Futher, if we can’t tell when we are making progress, then how can we know if what we are doing is making any difference at all?

The problem here is that I do not know what in the hell progress means.  I know that in the business context it means more.  More profit. More employees. More stores.  More everything.  More is not necessarily better, rarely has anything to do with the promises that organizations make, and more does not necessarily have any real meaning in relation to intangibles.  So, I cannot say that I am in favor of what we call progress without some further conversation around what that actually means.

If you love your work today, I am good with that.  I feel no need to come back and try to get you to love your work another 10% tomorrow.  If you take joy in your work today, if you can be honest with your co-workers today I am good with that.  Organizationally managed progress is generally a distraction (often a monetized one) from what is really important (and natural)…real, honest relationships within which we figure things out for ourselves.  It is almost impossible for you and I to figure out how to move our engagement from 4.2 to 5.0 because it does not actually mean anything to us.


Some things are intangible.  They cannot be felt, counted or stacked.  We know that they exist, we know that they are important and powerful, but they cannot be quantified.  Intangibles also tend to be fluid, dynamic and contextual so we are probably not likely to even agree completely on a definition.  We are all in agreement about what a pound of sugar is.  We are all in agreement about what a square foot of office space is.  But we may have a variety of different definitions of love, along with different stories and different feelings.  It is an intangible and try as we might, we cannot change that.

But we sure do try.  We invent something that is based on a shizillion surveys and we call it the metric for love or inclusion or engagement or leadership.  Its bullshit, but it is so much simpler and more orderly than the alternative.  Or we count clicks or “friends” and we call it social capital or influence.

Instead of being in the messy work of human things, we are in the neat and orderly work of mannequin things.

Trying to measure love and joy and trust in the same manner that we measure dollars and milk and laptops is absurd, we simply do not have adequate tools or an adequate understanding.  It’s like using a sledgehammer to apply cake frosting or using a snow plow to code software.  It is absurd, but it comes in a nice package with nice buzzwords and it provides us with the wonderful illusion that we can focus on (and control) things like integrity and passion and creativity without having real, messy and human and honest conversations with each other about these things.

AND…we can do it without destroying the existing models of the organization and of leadership…which works out well for those at the top of the heap.

This is also how we take things that exist between people like trust and collaboration, and give them to consultants and bosses.  Instead of letting people work this out on their own, we put someone in charge of the initiative and its accompanying metrics.  We do have to justify that big pyramid shaped organizational chart after all.

And all of this is incredibly dishonest (although maybe not intentionally so)…this is how we justify war in the name of peace.  This is how we destroy what really matters for the pursuit of what we can really measure.  This is how we have dishonest conversations about honesty and this is how we have Enrons, BPs, space shuttle disasters and a whole lot of people not really giving a shit about the company that they work for.


I think that our use of metrics in the world of work is of little positive benefit and quite often times facilitates really bad stuff.  Not because of bad intentions, but because of some fundamentally flawed ideas of measurement and priorities that have become part of the reigning religion of business.

At the end of your post you ask how do I “know that what I am doing is making a difference?”  My smart ass response to that is simply that I am making a profit, what more do you need to know?  But my real answer is that I do know that I am making a difference, I can feel it in my heart and in my belly…not every single day, but I feel it on a regular basis…it shows up in the conversations that I have with people and the feedback that I receive.  It feels very different than not making a difference…but it is not something that shows up on a dial, a spreadsheet or a dashboard.  And I am okay with that…actually, I think that we are all okay with that.  I do not think that any of this is about knowing whether or not we are making a difference, but rather about proving in some statistical way to someone else that we are making a difference.

And again this points to fact that if we were able to actually have big honest conversations with each other, a lot of this other stuff would not be a very big deal.  In place of that we have hollow metrics built on a foundation of false ideas around priorities, purpose and progress.


  1. Great perspective Joe. Humans v. mannequins is a terrific way to frame how sterile the exclusive use of metrics can be. The posts you and Jason have shared really illustrate two key points for me:

    1. I need metrics because HR must step up in the organizations we serve as “speak” the language of the business.

    2. I need to include feelings, gut-reactions, and other tough to measure issues beyond traditional metrics to fully understand my organization’s culture.

    Perhaps by using both, I can maintain the level of respect HR currently enjoys, and simultaneously move my organization one step ahead.

  2. More great comments. I suspect we’re violently agreeing. Metrics can be hollow if they’re somehow taken as the whole point of the exercise rather than being a mechanism to stimulate good conversation, reflection and debate on where the organization needs to be going strategically. Fail faster, success sooner.

    The SWOT analysis can’t be complete if it doesn’t allow for inclusion of all possible topics (products, processes, people, etc.) and their role in achieving the core mission.

    I don’t care if the metric is non-scientific, as long as its measured the same way over time to see if the needle is moving in the right direction.

    Thanks, again!

  3. I’m so glad someone I follow on Twitter linked to this series, even if I did kind of land in the middle and thought at first you were advocating something with a very high woo-woo factor.

    Many people from what had been the training field are shifting to learning, which is not always (or even usually) defined as: put 30 people in a room for 25 and show PowerPoint until the weight of the handouts equals the weight of the audience.

    Which means that traditional metrics for training (student hours and scores on “objective” tests), always limited but easy to tote up, aren’t all that helpful. Learning isn’t something that happens to people, it’s something that people do. They do it on the job, in the cafeteria, in unstructured ways, and if you want them to continue learning you need to find ways to support and encourage them.

    I’ve lost weight in the past year, so I see an analogy (for learning metrics and business metrics) in how a person goes about setting a health goal and working toward it. Not just weight, not just BMI, not “diet” in the sense of “list of forbidden foods.” It’s more a search for practices (ideally with some research) that you personally can adopt and adapt.

    And that applies both to an original goal and to new ones that you develop as the environment changes.

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