The Toughest Things to Measure

by Stacey Barr |

Measure Up LinkedIn Group members collaborated with me to create this list of the toughest things to measure in business. What are they and what makes them so tough to measure?

Here they are, the toughest things to measure in business:

  • quality of life
  • creativity
  • value of life
  • sustainability
  • risk management
  • helpfulness to customers
  • responsiveness to customers
  • teamwork
  • compliance
  • collaboration
  • employee morale
  • safety attitudes
  • supervisor/leadership effectiveness
  • workforce development
  • direct impact of consulting
  • impact of initiatives on results
  • training effectiveness
  • happiness
  • culture
  • maturity
  • commitment
  • motivation
  • passion
  • employee engagement
  • business reputation
  • strength/reliability of customer relationships

What makes these so hard to measure?

They aren’t framed as performance results yet. Objects in the list above are still just broad concepts or areas of performance. Before you can measure something, you must frame it as a result that you want to improve or achieve or create.

Secondly, those hard-to-measure things are phrased with weasel words: quality, value, sustainability, responsiveness, effectiveness, collaboration, morale, impact, maturity, engagement, reliability. The result you want to measure must be written in language that describes something you can observe and therefore have evidence of its existence. Weasel words won’t do.

So the problem is not one of measurement, but one of articulation of the results we want to improve or achieve or create. When you can evidence something, you can measure it.

How do you make the seemingly immeasurable become measurable?

You have to change your language and get ultra-clear about the specific performance results that are a priority to you.

What exactly about morale do you want to change? Is it that employees behave more proactively? Or that they talk about the company in a positive way, rather than slagging off at it all the time?

What specifically does training effectiveness mean? Does it mean that after training, employees retain what they learned? Or that they put into practice what they learned? Or that their process performance measures show that by practicing what they learned, process performance is improving? Or does it mean all these things?

Vagueness is the enemy of measurement, but also the enemy of reaching excellence. And vagueness is often the reason why those hard-to-measure things appear to be immeasurable.


What are you struggling to measure, and how could you make it more measurable now? Share your suggestions on the blog.

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  1. James Creelman says:

    Just wondering why risk management is considered difficult to measure. There are well-designed processes for identifying key risks (best linked to strategic objectives) and from this defining key risk indicators and also key control indicators.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Of course, James! That’s the point about these ‘hard to measure’ things: when you’re clear about the specific results, then the measuring becomes easy. The problem is that we rarely are clear about the specific results. People think “Oh, I must find some measures to do with risk…” but what they haven’t done is *first* ask “What are the risks that we need to manage most?”

  2. Yair Sharon says:

    I guess I’m not the first one that raise the idea of bypath the subject to measure, rather measure it outcome. let say you want to scale “creativity”. if one is writing his idea on word documents, a good measure for creativity would be the number of new and original documents this person produced in certain period.
    Think about employs sick days as a measure of motivation.
    what about vocabulary and phrases used in documents, to measure the workforce development?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Yair, that’s a good example of showing how to make a vague result more specific. You’re exploring what “creativity” means in the specific context we might me interested in. We have to do that if we’re going to make those vague and broad and intangible concepts measurable. Thanks!

  3. Ehsan says:

    It may be difficult to measure the items identified by the survey but these days almost everything is measurable e.g. Quality Life can be measured by comparing it against quality of life indices freely available and so can many others mentioned by the survey. It may not be very accurate but will give a good idea about the quality of life whether good, bad or ugly!

  4. Martin Perron says:

    Stacey, this problem is probably greater when you add the point that words that organizations use doesn’t even mean sometimes what they are supposed to mean. For example, I am an operational effectiveness analyst in an Insurance company. What is effectiveness ? It is producing the intended or expected result… So are they some claims in my company that receive no answer (the reason why we exist after all)… No. So why is my purpose !?!?! When I asked, the answer I got was to help make our operations effective with less resources possible (money, people, etc.)… OH I see, I am really an OPERATIONAL EFFICIENCY ANALYST !

    I just want to show with this example that things are tough to measure because people have different ways to define a concept. Go ask to some people what means “creativity”, “quality”, “compliance”, “success”… So I agree with the post, be more specific on what you want to measure.

    I also want to add two other things tough to measure from my experience :

    1-Client experience : some months ago, a client asked me to make a improve process productivity without affecting the client experience. Ok, so I asked what is the client experience I must not affect… No answer at the time and they still thinking about it…

    2-Onboarding : A department once show me a KPI about measuring effectiveness of onboarding for new employees. Since onboarding means : “the process of acquiring, accommodating, assimilating and accelerating new team members [or new employee]”, it was quite a challenge.

  5. Kevin Kirkpatrick says:

    There is an even bigger derivative challenge. Most companies don’t even want to address these issues because they are resource consuming, will likely create a path of ‘worse before it gets better’ and most difficult it may expose ineffective or destructive middle and senior managers. Being driven by quarterly numbers will never nurture this kind of long term thought. Are there case studies showing companies who do address these issues and have positive results?

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Kevin, I don’t have any case studies about this problem as a whole. It is a real and big problem, and when the problem is big, the solution doesn’t start with measurement. We have seen many people use better measurement practice to try to turn around a senior leadership team that is fearful of those things you point out. While we can see how better measurement can shift the culture throughout the organisation, it happens only when senior leadership are already on board, or they are not actively sabotaging what others in the organisation are doing with measurement. Over my long years in this field, I am nearing the conclusion that it’s the future generations of senior leaders (those who value truth and learning over good news and recognition) who will change the world with better measurement.

  6. Kevin Kirkpatrick says:

    The language you are using is fundamentally flawed when you discuss the importance of clearly defining what it is “you” are trying to achieve. These are all subjective topics that must be measured on a grass roots level to ever achieve accuracy. Quality of Life is a great example. “You” (which is clearly your current and potential client base of senior managers) cannot define what is considered an improvement for anyone else (e.g. non management employees). This approach artificially assigns a metric which can only be defined by the individual being measured. Corporate could say “his income has doubled in the past year, so clearly his quality of life has improved” and that could be and is in many cases patently false.

    • Stacey Barr says:

      You’d be totally correct if it were the measurement of individual people that I was referring to. But it’s not. The things listed in this article are often goals that leaders often have for the whole organisation, not for individual people. That being the case, it’s the team of people that own they goal that have the responsibility to understand the context and unique meaning of these things in their own organisation. And then articulate them as specific result-oriented goals, before measuring them. Under no circumstance have I or do I ever recommend the measurement of individual people (unless a person wants to measure something about their own personal performance, for their own personal use).

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