Great Measures Start With Great Words

by Stacey Barr |

Often in measuring performance we ask a question too soon: so, how do we measure that? As soon as you answer that question, you’re tumbling down the rabbit-hole toward a world of silliness and subjectivity. The characters you’re surrounded by are pretentious goals claiming to be too complex to measure, and confused goals draped in trivial counts and milestones.

word cloud of beautiful words

When you do performance measurement properly, you never have to ask that question in the first place. A good procedure for measure selection will walk you step-by-step from your goal, to its implied results, to the evidence of those results, to potential measures, and then to the most relevant and feasible of those measures.

A good measure selection procedure will start with words, not numbers. It will insist that you rewrite your goals using words that make the goal come to life in your mind’s eye.

And it won’t be easy. You’ll default back to weasel words faster than a speeding bullet. You’ll debate about what the goal really means. You’ll find it easier to talk about how to achieve the goal than how to know to what extent it is achieved. You’ll list tenuous evidence of your goal. And the measures you craft from that evidence will likely be written vaguely and unquantitatively.

These are the biggest mistakes I see people make in selecting performance measures. And it all has to do with the use of words. My niece would encourage her 1-year-old daughter to try hard to express herself when she wanted something, by saying “Leah, use your words.”

When you’re after more meaningful performance measures, use your words. Describe very clearly the result you want to measure. Describe very clearly the evidence of that result. Describe very clearly the potential measures that will quantify that evidence.

Don’t be lazy. Be deliberate. The better you can use your words, the better your measures will be. The clearer you are about what you’re trying to achieve, the more meaningful your measures will be.


How often do you hear people ask “What should we measure?” What happens next?

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  1. Rich says:

    Great post. The laziness I see most in IT functions comes from the unthinking adoption of so-called ‘Best Practice’ KPIs/metrics followed by a rush to targets. Taking this shortcut is a failure to recognise that objectives/results need to be articulated at all, however bad the language. Creating a ‘measure-free-zone’ forces this thinking early in the process.

  2. Burt Jackson says:

    We drag out the ITIL book of measurements/KPIs and start rummaging through it looking for something useful.

  3. Tom G says:

    In my experience, the question, “How will we measure that,” is usually issued as an offensive postioning statement used to show that the asker is “results oriented.” I love the thought that if it comes up too early, it short circuits possibilites. I have seen this question immediately move people from a mind set of possibility to saftey seeking. (Managers and staff) Corporate personal brand managment seems to say that you need to set a bar that is so low that you cannot fail to achieve it. The result that has often happened is that the vision is confused with immediate goal. In achieving the short term goal as the vision, a great deal of opportunity and learning are sacrifieced on the road of achieving instead of becoming. I am still working on selling these ideas and overcoming the the forces of status quo – it is not easy… Thank you for the encouragement.

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