Leadership Spotlight: Measure What Matters – Only What Matters

This guest post is written by Tim Rahschulte, Ph.D, Chief Executive Officer, Professional Development Academy, in partnership with the NACo High Performance Leadership Academy as part of MACo’s Spotlight on Leadership series.

Metrics are part of the performance management system and if not used properly, they can do as much harm as good.

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If you’re going to focus on action in an effort to accomplish something, anything, you’re going to want to measure it.

How else will you know if you’re making progress, getting better, achieving what’s possible and staying on track to reach your aiming points and realize your envisioned future state?

You’ve got to be careful, though, as you go about making sense of your work by using metrics and measures. Russ Martinelli, Jim Waddell and I wrote the book Program Management for Improved Business Results.

In it, we note, “Metrics are powerful; or perhaps more precise, for better or worse, metrics are powerful. Metrics are part of a larger organizational construct —the performance management system — and if not used properly, they can do as much harm as good. Hence, the ‘for better or worse’ caveat.”

You see, measuring in and of itself isn’t hard. To measure, you’ve got to have data and in today’s data age, that’s not a problem.

There’s more data available to us today than ever before, and its availability is growing. So, accessing data isn’t the problem. Interpreting data, on the other hand, can get really tricky, real fast.

The goal with data and the use of metrics is to make sense of what’s happening and forecast what’s next.

Or as mentioned by some leaders over the years, you’ve got to “collect the dots and then connect the dots.”

You need to understand all of what’s going on, make sense of what’s going on and figure out how it all affects your business goals and vision. You want to be able to use data to gain clarity and insights regarding what’s currently happening based on actions taking place and what may happen because of the actions and resultant outputs and outcomes. In his article “The ABCs of Analytics,” David Meer, a partner at Booz Allen, wrote, “Any analysis of data that stops after asking ‘what,’ which is already a big undertaking, isn’t analytics. You have to ask ‘why?’ and ‘what next?’”

Connecting the dots for intelligence helps to understand what’s next for decision making and the actions that follow.

When it comes to true insights and intelligence, most organizations struggle. They either try to measure too much, measure the wrong things, measure without specific cadence, or measure to create bureaucracy — the list goes on, and none of it creates clarity, let alone intelligence. Instead, it actually creates confusion, frustration, and disengagement from action.

Just because data are easy to collect doesn’t mean they’re useful. Remember this rule from earlier in this article series: Don’t confuse effort with progress or output with outcomes. You’ve got to measure what matters most.

Performance management isn’t about finding the “perfect” metrics to measure and manage. Perfect metrics don’t exist.

Find the measures and metrics that explain your business — those you can use to tell a story and make decisions that lead you to your next aiming point and critical outcome. The best metrics are simple, with data that are easily accessible, understandable, and consistently useable.

It’s common knowledge that what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed is most likely to improve over time.

Anything we do and anything we think is worth doing is also worth measuring. Partha Srinivasa, the chief information officer at HCC Insurance Holdings Inc., reminds us of this fact: “If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” But you’ve got to collect the right data to measure the right things for any improvement to be realized.

Instead of getting access to more data, the most relevant question for most of us is what should we measure. You and everyone on your team should know the answer to that question.

To know what to measure, you have to know what’s important. Don’t confuse important things with just those things that you value. Things you value may be important, but they may not be.

The things to measure are those relative to critical outcomes and those that prove assurance that you’re aligned with your aiming points and vision.

To understand these metrics and measures means that you may need to ask others who are across the enterprise what’s most important for them relative to working toward your joint purpose and vision.

Many leaders say, “I measure what you treasure.” This is an often-used phrase and one Tom Schuman wrote about in his article “Measure What You Treasure.” It’s good advice. It encourages us to look beyond what we value to the interests of those we’re reporting to and serving through our actions.

Learn what matters most to them. Learn the business through the perspective of others. Measure what they treasure. Measure what matters most.

Interested in learning more about leadership tools and skills?

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With a robust curriculum developed by the Professional Development Academy in partnership with Fortune 1000 executives, public sector leaders, world-renowned academics and thought leaders, including General Colin Powell and Dr. Marshall Goldsmith, HPLA was designed specifically for the unique challenges and opportunities of serving in county government.

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