Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted – William Bruce Cameron, Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking
Do you have a wearable tech device that monitors your activity – something like a Fitbit or smart watch.
Have you set yourself a target, like 10,000 steps a day.
Then, in the coming days, when you’ve fallen short, have you tried taking extra steps, pacing the floor to make up the numbers and been delighted when you pushed through the virtual tape and reached your goal?
And then, after a while, as the novelty wore off, did you stop?
I think we many people make a huge mistake when they start using measures and metrics – one that most never really realise they’re making.
For example, year after year, managers set targets – targets that are based on some arbitrary increase from a previous figure – say 20% year on year growth.
Maybe they use that to set targets for bonuses because they believe that having a goal will incentivise people to work harder.
And this assumption turns out wrong time after time, but we don’t seem to learn.
And this is why.
It’s easiest to see this happening when it comes to your health.
When you start putting on weight it’s tempting to think that the answer is in a fix – more exercise, less bad food.
So we put effort into eating less, eating better, going out for a run.
We don’t change anything else about what we do – we just add this additional bit that takes effort and willpower to keep doing.
And eventually, almost inevitably, we run out of energy to maintain that effort.
And that’s because this effort we exert is an external thing – a forcing effect – like you’re pressing down on the bonnet of a car – forcing down the suspension.
Eventually, you’ll have to let go and the car goes back to its normal position.
Remove the forcing effect and the old system returns – the one where you weighed more and had snacks every day.
Now, you say, surely goals are good, targets are better.
Aren’t goals dreams with a deadline and all that kind of jazz?
Let’s go back to the steps example.
The first thing your tracker tells you is what “normal” looks like for your step count.
For example, on weekends I have no difficulty hitting the count because we’re out with the kids and doing stuff.
On work days it’s hard, because I’m in all the time and standing at a computer.
On the days when I walk to school I get closer to the limit, exceeding it on some days.
The beauty of the tracker is that it tells me what is going on – and that set of figures is what you could term an “emergent metric”.
It’s something that emerges from the natural pattern of your life – the voice of the process.
Now, if you try and force that metric up eventually you’ll go back to normal when the forcing activity stops.
If you really want to change that metric then you have to change the underlying system.
For example, you might walk your kids to school even on the days you don’t have to.
You might choose to do your mid-week shop on foot rather than driving down as you normally do.
When you make those kinds of changes what you’re trying to do is change the system – and if that change is something you can keep doing without additional effort – then you have a good change of getting your metric to move in the right direction.
Not by targeting it but by changing the system that results in it.
This is semantics, you might say, whether you force it or change it – the same thing is happening.
And you would be wrong.
People who focus on metrics fail to see that metrics simply express what is going on.
As Deming said, every system is perfectly designed to deliver the results it does.
If you want to change you have to change the system.
For centuries, the only way to track things was by keeping a manual record – which is why we perhaps confused the record with the thing that results in the record.
But now, we have systems that can help us track what we’re doing without having to think about it.
For example, the number of posts I write in a year and the average length of each post seem around the same year on year.
That’s because the system I have to write and publish creates that result.
All too often the way we work makes it difficult to get these figures naturally from the work we do.
But that’s a technical problem – something that can be solved if you have the expertise needed to automate the collection and analysis of data that is generated through activity.
If you imagine your life, your business, as something that just goes on – like life in a town space.
What would you need to overlay on top of that – what systems would you need to invisibly collect data on what is going on?
Collect data that emerges, that is.
Because when you analyse that data – it’s like a doctor with an ECG.
You’re seeing straight into the heart of your system.
And you’ll know whether it’s healthy or clogged.
More importantly, you’ll know whether you need to make a change or not.
And it will be effortless.