Want Great KPIs? You Have to Get Sensory…

by Stacey Barr

The building blocks of KPIs and performance measures is detectable evidence. And evidence is detectable when it is sensory.

Coloured building blocks with an eye, an ear, a mouth and a nose.

We can only measure what we can observe or detect. If we have no way of seeing or hearing or touching something, how could we ever know if it was happening or changing?

This is why if our goals are written in weasel words, we have huge struggles to measure them. Weasel words don’t describe observable things. We cannot observe ‘effectiveness’, so we don’t know what to count to quantify and measure it. But we can see errors in workmanship, and we can count them. We can hear customers asking for corrections, and we can count them.

But this problem goes away when we describe our goals with sensory language.

Sensory language is one of the most important requirements for great KPIs.

Imagine that you’re holding a fresh, bright yellow lemon in your left hand. It feels waxy – maybe even squeaky – and dimply under your fingertips. It’s heavy for its size, which makes you think it’s very juicy. With your index fingernail, you scratch the skin and watch a fine mist of lemon oil spray into the air. You lift the lemon to your nose to smell the sharp citrusy fragrance…

Now take a bite.

Did anything happen? When I first heard this, and obligingly followed the instructions, my face screwed up in response to the expectation of the sour lemon taste. Why would this happen if we don’t have an actual lemon in our hands?

That’s the power of sensory-specific language. It makes things real.

Sensory-specific language is based on words that describe what our senses can detect: what we see, hear, touch, feel, taste or smell. Sensory nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are all useful in describing our goals measurably. Like these:

angular, abrasive, blurred, buzzing, burnt, cluttered, crushed, dark, deep, doughy, enormous, echo, foggy, fragile, green, high, hiss, humid, irregular, itchy, juicy, knotted, littered, loud, muscular, melted, narrow, noisy, opaque, odourless, pale, quiet, quick, speechless, spotty, swollen, tubular, tight, vivid, wavy, yellow

In contrast, weasel words are ambiguous and vague and have many different meanings to different people in different contexts. You’ll be very familiar with these:

accessibility, accountability, balanced, benefits, capacity, core, deployable, diversity, effective, empowered, flexible, fundamental, governance, ground-breaking, harness, harvested, inclusive, innovative, key, lean, leveraged, mandated, needs, opportunities, outcomes, pathways, progressive, quality, recognition, re-energise, significant, special, targeted, transparent, underpinning, utilised, value-added, vibrant, wellbeing, winning

Write your goals with sensory-specific language

The better we can describe our goals in sensory-specific language, the more obvious it becomes what we should measure to know if the goal is being achieved.

This goal is the first (weaselly) version of a local government goal:

“Enhance our protection of the natural landscape.”

A goal written like this is really tough to measure. What exactly is protection? Protection from what? And what natural landscape are we talking about? Protection of exactly which features or aspects of this natural landscape?

We have a snowflake’s chance in a bushfire of quickly finding meaningful measures of goals written like this. We need to answer those questions. We need to think seriously about what we’d expect to see or touch or smell or observe, if the natural landscape were protected.

In other words, we need to rewrite the goal using sensory-specific language. And the local government did, and arrived at this new sensory version:

“The fragile soils of ridges and escarpments, and valuable farming and urban land, are protected from unnatural erosion and loss of topsoil.”

Straight away we can visualise what this goal means. We see in our minds’ eyes the rolling hills and rocky outcrops, the earthy patchwork of crops, vast green pastures dotted with cows or sheep grazing. We see black or red topsoil in some places, and grey and cracked and dry ruts in the earth in other places.

And consequently, we can see very strong potential to quantify this goal:

  • The area of land that shows erosion.
  • The area of land that has lost its topsoil.
  • Estimated volume of soil that has moved from where it should be.

3 ways to increase your sensory language skills…

Using sensory language takes practice. We don’t need to master it, however, before it becomes profoundly useful in our KPI work. To get some practice, here are three easy things to try.

Firstly, read poetry. One of my favourites, for its quirky and repetitive rhythm and dark imagery, is “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe.

“And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
“‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is and nothing more.””

– excerpt from “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

Secondly, keep your own list of sensory words. Particularly sensory nouns, adjectives and adverbs that relate to the context of your organisation’s work. This helps develop the muscle of thinking in sensory language, as well as building a resource to help when you need to measure a goal.

Thirdly and finally, before you start measuring any goal, keep asking questions like “what would we see?” and “what might we hear?” and “what could we reach out and touch?”.

By the way, if you find yourself thinking that your goals are essentially intangible, and this doesn’t apply, then ask yourself this: “If I cannot observe or detect this goal happening or changing, what’s the point of having it as a goal?”

Speak Your Mind

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  1. shambel Hordofa says:

    Setting measurable objective or goal is very important. As you know unless measure you can’t manage your strategy. To me that is BSc rule. Setting Strategic goal is sometimes difficult. AS you said some words are weasel.Yes I agree with you.However,usually naturally we face those words. That is due to the very nature of a certain institution purpose( mission or vision) we encounter them.For instance, take the ultimate goal of justice sectors.Their Ultimate goal may be to “ensure justice”. How do we Know whether the justice ensured or not? How do we measure? Some says that Justice is said to be ensured when it is predictable,Effective,Accessible to the society at large. Do you see such words predictability,effectiveness,accessibility,quality,fairness and the like.Such and such words are common and also natural.What is Our alternative? regarding justice can we describe our goal in sensory specific language or words? practically it is hard to measure. I need your explanation!

    • Stacey Barr says:

      Shambel yes it is often very hard to use words that are not weasely! But using those words has become a learned habit, they are not natural at all!

      For justice, we want to explain it’s purpose in a way that anyone can understand. Is it not something more like this:

      We help to prevent people from suffering any form of personal loss due to the unlawful actions of another person or group of people, without causing unnecessary loss to those people commiting those unlawful acts.

      That’s just my first attempt, but often a first attempt is enough to trigger the kind of conversation you need to have to make your mission/vision/goals easier to understand and therefore more measurable.

      Who else has some ideas, either for Shambel or another example of a weasely goal?

  2. Prahlad Bhugra says:

    I had a thought to share with Shambel.
    Going by what Stacey is saying, for ENSURE JUSTICE – we cannot smell, taste or touch it – it is only seen and heard. The person who wants justice can only see in the end whether he has got justice or not and after how long. Also, during court proceedings discussions are heard by the judge to provide justice. In that context the goal can be written as –
    Ensure justice to all by resolving the cases 10% faster than basline and by reducing the false judements by 10% as compared to baseline.

    The projects associated with goal could be –
    a) to make the processes faster – making use of automations so that as soon as some one makes a complaint – he immediately gets a time & date for his hearing without going through lot of wrriten work and wastage of money/time. Here different types of cases can be categorized and we can get plot on XmR charts to get baseline
    b) Similarly, we can generate a database of all the previous judgements for the helping the judge under various categories of cases – this will help him to take better decision. May be a team of qualified judges can classify the previous judgements as True & false – and that database can help in providing the baseline measure for quality.
    Hope this helps

  3. I was going to reply to Shambel’s question, but realized my reply would fit as a general comment to your post, so…

    Stacey you hit on the key to making a strategic plan usable: “describe [y]our goals in observable language that a 5th grader would understand.” And then you also pointed out what I’ve learned from experience, “It takes practice.” I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to teach others how to do this…it seems more art than science.

    But, I use the 5 Why’s and my natural curiousity to help the leader keep breaking down the goal until it’s simple enough for a “5th grader to understand.” Actually I tell people to explain their goal to their in-laws (assuming that the in-laws have no background, experience, or interest in the topic!). Making it so a 5th grader would understand may actually be simpler than possible (See Albert Einstein). In any case, your point is championed – break it down into simpler and simpler terms until it’s clear for anyone to understand what you want to achieve.

    It does take practice and a little talent. But, you can get pretty good at it if you:
    1. Know little about the topic (so you don’t assume or take things for granted)
    2. Are inquisitive enough to ask the questions
    3. Are humble enough to keep admitting that you don’t “get it” until you truly do.


  4. Stacey Barr says:

    Prahlad and Marty – these are both great suggestions and following the same vein. I hope that Shambel returns to read this great advice!

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