QUESTION: How do you measure seemingly immeasurable work?

July 24, 2012 by Stacey Barr

Andy M. asks: “Many of my colleagues work in what is often called a “considerative” area. They don’t produce things. They assess evidence, form judgements, give opinions. They say the work is too complicated to be measured. I keep saying “If you can’t measure it how do you know you’re providing quality?” How can I convince them?”

ripples on water

If something is too complicated to be measured, too nebulous and unpredictable and intangible, then it means that no-one can recognise when that ‘something’ is good, bad or indifferent.

Putting data feasibility to one side for the moment, if you can describe how you would recognise if something was better, you can measure it. Douglas Hubbard, author of “How to Measure Anything” explains this with his clarification chain:

  1. If it matters at all, it is detectable/observable.
  2. If it is detectable, it can be detected as an amount (or range of possible amounts).
  3. If it can be detected as a range of possible amounts, it can be measured.

Here are a few steps you can experiment with, to help people get clearer about their seemingly immeasurable work:

Step 1: Forget about what they do for now, and think about who they do it for (that is, their customers).

Start the search for meaningful measures by asking a few questions:

  • who are the ‘customers’ they assessing evidence, judging and forming opinions for?
  • what do those customers do with the opinions they give them?
  • what are their hopes for what those customers do with the opinions they give them?
  • how would the customers’ endeavours be different, if they didn’t get those opinions?

Step 2: Try as many ways as possible to describe the difference they make for their customers.

The focus shouldn’t be on ‘what’ they produce for their customers (their intangible outputs, as it were). The focus should be on the ‘impact’ they have on their customers.

This can be scary, because often people are stuck in the mindset of coming to work to do things, rather than to have an impact. But it could also be the most meaningful conversation they’ve ever had. Talking about the impact they create in working together can unite a team around a poweful shared purpose.

And it also gives people something bigger to turn up to work for each day.

Step 3: Make sure their ‘impact statements’ are clear, unambiguous and non-weasely.

Take another look at those ‘impact statements’ and reword them if necessary, so they are crystal clear. No management jargon, no technical speak, no vague words. Don’t be afraid to dumb it down.

The idea is that you want words that easily and immediately evoke in the mind’s eye the real impact the team ultimately wants to have. This takes practice, so practice.

Step 4: When they have agreed on what their ‘impact statements’ are, these are what you will measure.

If you’ve made those ‘impact statements’ clear and unambiguous, then it should almost be obvious what the measures are that will be the best evidence of the degree to which that impact is happening.

Closing thoughts: Why do we struggle to measure the seemingly immeasurable?

I can’t tell you how often I see this as the root cause for poor performance measurement: the vague and wishy-washy way that people describe their goals or outputs or deliverables or objectives (or whatever they want to measure).

It’s hard to get out of that bad habit of using management-speak. But you will continue to have pathetic performance measures until you do break that habit.

TAKE ACTION: What impact are you, your team, your company trying to have in the world? How well can you describe that impact? Would an eight-year-old understand it? Find out.

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  1. Elke Troosters says:

    Hello Stacey, all

    I lead a team of 7 so-called Process Experts that give advice to the regional Europe/Africa supply chain on how to run the planning, logistics, production and quality processes as smooth and compliant to policy as possible. It is a struggle to define a measure for the team’s performance that is concrete and tangible. I have also been tasked to apply Visual Management to underpin the performance management in the team. With great interest I read this issue of Measure UP. I will let you know how I got on in explaining to an 8-year old what impact the team and I have on the business!

  2. Stacey Barr says:

    Elke, please do let us know what you come up with! There is such power in being able to put into simple words the impact you and your team has. I’m sure that it will change even the way they feel about what they do!

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