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What is the role of measurement in a purpose-led organisation?

Measurement is key to the belief in status quo organisations (see: "What is the status quo organisation?") that we can not only predict outcomes but that we can reliably control and analyse them. So what role does it have in a 21st Century Organisation that accepts the complex reality we operate in is neither predictable nor controllable? Why measure at all?

The questions below are designed to help us explore why we wish to use measurement and how we will go about choosing what to include.

Do I need to measure it?

The idea that only measurable things are worth doing is just not true: love is the most obvious example. The status quo’s fixation on measurement is rooted in its scientific approach to management. But this philosophy is far less relevant to a 21st Century Organisation where other sources of truth are also welcome.

Is it rooted in doubt?

Our need to measure often speaks to our doubt or lack of faith in the process we’re attempting to measure. If that’s the case, then we must consider why that’s so, and address that first.

Why is it being used?

Measurement should be used to decide how to best serve and resource the core work of the organisation. It should be about how can we improve. It should not be a mechanism to monitor and control people (employees being the most common recipient) directly or otherwise.

Is it only looking down the system?

The irony of the measurement conversation is that whilst it is so quickly raised by the top and centre as a "must answer question", those advocates are not nearly as quick to apply that logic to themselves: the first and sustained line of measurement enquiry when discussing a shift in governance is always looking down the hierarchy, or away from the centre.

Who does it serve?

Measurement should serve the front line employees and, ultimately, the customer. The purpose of the organisation is delivered primarily by those in direct contact with the “outside” world - customers, key stakeholders etc. As such, the measurement should primarily be concerned with how an organisation is serving those employees, not how well employees are serving their managers.

Who will build it?

What is measured should be co-created alongside those doing the actual work. If the core workers have not contributed to what is being measured, then what is chosen will be less relevant and meaningful and, potentially, viewed with considerable suspicion.

Am I being realistic?

When we start thinking about measurement we quickly fall prey to the idea that the system is predictable and consistent. But the complex environment we now operate within just isn’t. So, be realistic about what is actually measurable and meaningful.

Would I ask this of my spouse/partner/family?

Does this measurement have a method and approach that respects the humans it affects? If it limits, or turns those involved into another ‘cog in the wheel’ or negatively impacts morale in any way, it may do more harm than good. Always consider whether the numbers are worth it: people should come first.

Can I make this public?

Measurement should not be for the shadows. We should be proud of what we want to measure and we’ll certainly need to default to sharing it across the organisation. But this question works like a double-edged sword: if we don’t want to measure something because we fear the results, then that is just as important to note.

Am I going to be more interested in a measurement than a real outcome?

Our addiction to predicting and controlling outcomes encourages us to focus on the measurement itself as opposed to focusing on what we should actually be trying to achieve. The school system’s temptation to focus on good grades over real learning being a classic example. Furthermore, it’s what we plan to do after we’ve measured something that really matters - not the measurement itself.

Am I linking this to the pay system?

Think very hard before adding metrics to the pay system: behavioural science (contrary to popular thought) is unlikely to be on your side if you do. With the best intentions the metrics will never be entirely objective and, if they’re to be individualised, people are likely to structure their efforts to reap short-term financial reward over the long-term strategic vision.

If this was my own business, would I use it?

The partnership mindset demands we ask this question. If we wouldn’t use it, then we have a problem.

Will these numbers lie?

The adage that numbers don’t lie is a myth. Numbers lie all the time: “good” numbers do not necessarily mean an endeavour is going well.

Could the measurement be misinterpreted?

As all metrics are devised, gathered and interpreted by human beings, so there is plenty of room for the data to feed issues like self-delusion.

How far behind reality will this measurement lag?

Technology is increasing our capacity to have “live” data. But, for the large part, a lot of measurement carries a lag, sometimes significantly so. How worthwhile it is to measure something with a time lag in our fast moving environment depends on the context and time gap.

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  1. John Featherby

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