What To Do When They Say “Our Work Is Too Unpredictable To Measure”

by Stacey Barr |

Mike and Greg are clients of mine. They are geological engineers who work on what you would essentially call “discovery”. Their job is to find profitable new sites for their company.

It’s a lot like innovation or invention or complex problem solving, where you just can’t guarantee the outcome, or even if there will be an outcome at all.

People who work in such jobs are understandably touchy about their work performance being measured. They have far less control over the outcomes of their work than do people who manufacture Barbie and Ken dolls, or who train new recruit police officers, or who handle IT help desk enquiries.

Does this mean that they should stay KPI-free, that measuring the performance of their work is a futile effort? I don’t think so. I think that measuring unpredictable work is an absolute must.

family of paper dolls

Exactly what is so unpredictable, complex or intangible?

It’s not the work process that’s unpredictable, it’s just the outcome of that work process has a lot more variability than most processes. But it’s hard to see that without taking a process view of the work.

Mike’s and Greg’s first key to meaningfully measuring their unpredictable discovery outcomes is to understand the process that produces those discoveries. Starting up their flowcharting software, they could quickly flowchart the backbone of the discovery process and behold where the consistency is in how they go about finding those unpredictable discoveries.

Does unpredictable or complex mean we have no influence?

Sure, you can’t have complete control over whether you make a discovery, or when you invent something fabulous, or how valuable your innovation might be, or whether you’ll find a solution to a particularly complex problem. But you can’t say you don’t have any influence over it. That’s the whole point of your job!

Mike’s and Greg’s influence lies in the combination of their capability and the capability of their discovery process. And to paraphrase W. Edwards Deming, the Father of Quality, at least 80% of the influence they have over making a discovery is in their process1. Looking over their discovery process, Mike and Greg could start looking for where their influence lies and how they could amplify that influence by tweaking (or perhaps reengineering) their discovery process.

How measurement helps us amplify our influence.

Measurement is feedback, and performance measures are feedback about performance. They focus our attention on the things we should, can and will do something about (exercising our influence) and give us direct and objective feedback about how well we are exercising our influence.

If Mike and Greg want to make more or better discoveries, something has to change. We’ve already established that they can really only change their process. For example, they might try different technology to help them search, or use different information to assess potential discovery opportunities, or streamline the steps so they can evaluate more opportunities in the same time. When they do try something different, performance measures will help them see if their changes are working, or not.

Shift attention from the unpredictable outcome to the influenceable process.

So what can you do when they say “Our work is too unpredictable to measure”? Encourage them to turn their attention to their processes, to where they have influence, and to using measures to help them amplify their influence over the results or outcomes they produce. This way, they’ll start to see their unpredictable outcomes as something they can indeed have an impact on, even though they don’t have complete control.

(1) Factors outside the process also affect the outcome, but when they lie outside our circle of influence, we shouldn’t waste our time either trying to control them or complaining about them. Just accept them as a constraint.

Why not share your stories about situations where the work seems too unpredictable, complex or intangible to be measured? Let’s get some discussion going at the Measure Up blog and see if we can’t help each other with ideas for shifting teams who offer up this excuse not to measure.


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