Old Jokes and Zombies: metrics that need to go away

zombie 4_My grandfather had a wonderful sense of humor. Sadly, he only knew a half dozen jokes, so we got to hear the same ones over and over. I may have inherited this trait, much to my kids’ chagrin.

One of Grandpa’s favorite jokes was about a fellow that comes upon a drunk stumbling around underneath a street light, apparently searching or something. This fellow asks the drunk what he’s looking for.

“My keys!” The drunk slurs.
“Well, are you sure you lost them over here?” inquires the helpful fellow.
“Well, no,” says the drunk. “I lost them in the alley next to the bar.”
“Well why in the world are you looking for them over here?”
“Because the light is so much better here.”

Ok. Maybe Grandpa wasn’t as funny as I thought he was when I was eight.

But this joke comes to mind far too often when I’m having conversations about corporate metrics.

I frequently get the sense that many of the things we measure have little to do with our core business. Rather too many metrics are the equivalent of our inebriated friend choosing a search location based on visibility, not on the likelihood that it will contribute to success.

In short, many of us measure what we can, not what we should.

I’m not sure why this has become so prevalent, but nearly every venue in which I’ve discussed this phenomenon I get resounding agreement from those who have suffered the tyranny of corporate metrics.

Why is that? Why is there such disconnect between what we measure and what most people think we should measure? Most of the people I’ve met who determine, track, and analyze a company’s metrics have been really bright people. Maybe we just don’t understand them.

Perhaps it’s because most of us don’t see the connection between a particular metric and our overall success. It appears to those of us who can’t connect the pieces that the corporate “counters of things” are simply channeling our key-searching friend and measuring what they can see because they lack the ability to find what really matters.

I think there are two possibilities here. First is that the metrics actually do contribute directly to our success in some way but the link between measurement and success is invisible to most of us. If that is the case, increasing communication about the why of these metrics would go a long way in motivating the workforce to help collect reliable data for that metric and for achieving positive results in that stat.

The second possibility is that we really are measuring what venture capitalist and author John Doerr calls “zombie metrics.” These are metrics that are disembodied and disconnected from meaningful life. They exist without a soul or purpose but refuse to die.

Sadly, I think the second possibility is more prevalent. I’ve sat through enough Key Performance Indicator (KPI) assessments to know that there are few cause-effect linkages between most KPIs and an organization’s overall success. I have observed hard-working employees spend countless (expensive) hours measuring things that only serve to change the color on a PowerPoint slide thousands of miles away from red to amber but have no other inherent value.

So where do zombie metrics come from and why do they persist? I think there are a couple of possibilities. Some of them, I believe, used to be useful, productive metrics whose utility have has disappeared. They are no longer relevant but refuse to Rest in Peace. I am not sure, for example, why some government agencies continue to pay to measure “leadership effectiveness” through an online test even though the results are not used to make hiring decisions. Old habit?

Zombie metrics can also arise from flawed assumptions about cause and effect. Managers rationalize that if a certain activity takes place (cause) than a specific outcome is assured (effect). If we incentivize the cause, we can predict a positive outcome. In mechanical systems this is a pretty reliable model. Unfortunately, in complex systems (like those involving humans) cause and effect relationships aren’t nearly as clean. People systems are just not as predictable as mechanical ones, and actual cause and effect linkages are really hard to nail down.

Another source of zombie metrics is akin to availability heuristic. Much like the drunk looking for his keys we measure what is available instead of doing the difficult work of determining how to measure what matters.

So, what to do?

First, determine if the metric actually provides value. Is there a real, provable link between what you’re measuring and what you are trying to accomplish? Can you communicate that link in a believable way to your workforce?

Second, figure out if it’s actually worth measuring. That is, figure out those things we are spending money measuring and compare the cost of measurement to the value of information gained by that measurement.

This means that managers need to be able to quantitatively articulate the economic value of information. I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that many of the metrics we chase have an information value somewhere around zero.

I am not suggesting that we get rid of metrics: far from it! I think leaders should always seek the best information possible to inform decisions. I just don’t want to spend any more money on measuring things that simply don’t contribute to creating value. If a metric can be reasonably tied to a value-producing decision, it stays. If we measure something only because it’s under a streetlight or if the metric resembles the Walking Dead, it has to go.


Shut up and Color! But maybe Color Outside the Lines… it’s the key to moving forward

71zauao-ael._sl1470_The Army has a saying. Actually, the Army has lots of sayings, but a really common one is, “shut up and color.” I think this is a throwback to kindergarten when teachers would implore kids to focus on their artwork in a vain attempt to gain a few minutes of quiet.

In the Army it usually means, “I understand that you don’t like the order you were just given. Go do it anyway.” Or, it is a self-imposed resignation as in “I was going to push back on this thing because it doesn’t make sense but the guy in charge was really hot about it. I decided to just shut up and color.”

Either way there seems to be a lot of crayon work going on.

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Recommended Reading

The 32 Best Books I Read in 2018

2018 BooksWith millions of titles to choose from, figuring out what to read can be a challenge. With only so many hours in the day there is a limit on how much one can consume. In 2018 I read over 40 books and hundreds of articles. Most of them were worth reading. When do I find the time to read? Well, I cheat.  I have a 30-40 minute work commute each way, and I listen to audio books. I take notes with a hands-free voice recognition feature on Evernote. Books I actually read are typically on Kindle, and I rarely sit still for 5 minutes without reading something. Planes, airports, doctor’s office waiting rooms… never pass up an opportunity to expand your mind. Continue reading


Throwing People Under the Bus… 5 Tips to a Better Office Culture

bus-thrown-under-198636530Coming out of a contentious meeting where one executive’s proposal was discussed and rejected, I overheard the dejected leader chastise a colleague for “throwing me under the bus” for disagreeing with a proposal. I’ve heard this expression for years, and have never really understood where this particular idiom came from. Is there really a long-standing habit of physically shoving people underneath urban transportation? Is this so commonplace that it has become a cliché? If the metaphorical tram is moving, this would obviously be fatal, which, I suppose, is what the victim of some public criticism feels he or she is experiencing.

And research reveals that there is a far greater threat to pedestrians than busses: light trucks and passenger cars account for far more deaths than do busses (84% of vehicle-pedestrian incidents fell into these categories), but “you threw me under a light truck” just doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess. Continue reading

Articles, Guest Blogger

Stop Screening Candidates: What Recruiters Can Learn from Designers

Or, “the 1970s called and it wants its recruiting process back!”

One of the key components of leading a successful organization is finding, hiring, and developing the highest quality people. If you have an average hiring process, you are going to hire average people. That means that sometimes you are going to get a rock star, sometimes you are going to get a dud, but most of the time you are going to get middle-of-the-road performers. It is hard to become a World Class organization that way.

While researching ways to recruit and hire better in the 21st Century, I came across Vervoe, a blog that is dedicated to helping companies hire better talent through the use of Artificial Intelligence. By using AI-powered skill testing to identify top performers, Vervoe has changed the way many companies identify talent.

When I think about how most organizations (including mine) screen candidates, I feel like we haven’t progressed much in the last century or so. Guest Blogger, Omar Molad, explains how one company is using modern tools to solve a widespread problem.

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Articles, Essay

Now Hiring: Interview Principles to make Better Selections

hiringHire the Best Person for the job, not just the best interviewer!

In a large, risk-averse bureaucracy there is a tendency to create processes that try to minimize risk. In our hiring process we have reduced the job interview to one that values fairness over effectiveness. Every applicant is asked the exact same questions in the exact same order. Followup questions are verboten. If the applicant doesn’t understand the question, the interviewer repeats the question verbatim.

It’s as if we don’t really want them to work here.

Our most valuable resource is high quality people. To continue our success, we must continue to find, recruit, and hire the best possible people to do the essential work we do. It is inconsistent with this goal to conduct interviews in a manner that doesn’t contribute to it. Too often, our interviews are cold, uninviting, and exhausting. We must change that.

The following principles and guidelines are helpful steps in the right direction. Continue reading


Veteran’s Day Speech 2018

Veterans Day 2018I had the honor of addressing a crowd of veterans and our community to commemorate the 100th anniversary of signing of the Armistice ending World War I. The text is printed below.

Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for coming out today to honor those men and women, past and present who have served in our Armed Forces.

This occasion is a special one, as it was a hundred years ago today that our forces in the Army Expeditionary Force serving in France heard the news that Germany had signed the Armistice. We are a long ways from the days of horse drawn artillery and biplanes, and it is hard to imagine the sacrifices our doughboys made during that terrible conflict, or the exhilaration, relief and excitement those men and women felt just a hundred years ago today.

A year later, on November 11, 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the official end to World War I. In this proclamation, President Wilson spoke about this Nation’s contribution to the conflict in Europe. “…We were able to bring the vast resources, material and moral of a great and free people to the assistance of our associates in Europe who had suffered and sacrificed without limit in the cause for which we fought. Out of this victory there arose new possibilities of political freedom and economic concert… To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with – solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory…”

That’s tough to follow

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