Business Metrics Are Evil
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
One of the most insidious threats to innovation − and much else − in business today is metrics. There is nothing wrong with metrics in themselves. They have their purposes, I suppose. But most businesses are collecting the wrong metrics and, when it comes to innovation, they are really screwing up. Indeed, the innovation metrics most businesses collect are at best counter-productive and at worst, destroying the innovation potential of your team. In short, innovation metrics are evil. If you want people to be creative and your company to be innovative, stop obsessing over metrics now.
Brainstorms, idea management and crowdsourcing are businesses' favourite methods for collecting ideas and measuring innovation. A brainstorm that captures five ideas is a failure. One that captures 105 is a resounding success. Why? This metric says absolutely nothing about quality. One of those five ideas of the supposedly failed brainstorm could transform your business, while those 105 ideas might all be worthless. Moreover, the manager who organised the brainstorm will waste a half day, at least, simply sifting through the 105 ideas in order to select a mediocre one as the best idea. Idea management systems are worse in that they are expected to capture 100s of mediocre ideas from your workforce. And their success is further judged by participation levels. Why be satisfied with 500 participants sharing small ideas when you could have 2000 doing the same. Crowdsourcing initiatives simply up the ante with expectations of 1000s or even 10,000s of ideas from as many participants.
These measurements of quantity of ideas and participants say absolutely nothing about quality or value of ideas. Moreover, if employees are pestered to submit ideas to the electronic suggestion scheme, in order to increase the participation metric, they will simply submit first ideas that pop into their heads in order to complete their responsibilities. This is a recipe for mediocrity, not creativity.
Give me a diverse, small group from your organisation and let me take them away to a retreat for a couple of days. We'll come back with two or three ideas, but they will be two or three bloody brilliant and well developed ideas because your people are capable of brilliance if they are encouraged properly. From a metrics perspective, this would be a disaster. From an innovation perspective, it would be real results.
Why have organisations been so naive about collaboration? One reason is that collaboration is much easier to measure than "deep work" [being able to really focus on a problem]: any fool can record how many people post messages on Slack or speak up in meetings, whereas it can take years to discover whether somebody who is sitting alone in an office is producing a breakthrough or twiddling his thumbs.
Collaboration is fine and dandy, but if it does not lead to results, it is a waste of time and resources. Some people are introverts and will work best if left alone much of the time. Forcing them to attend meetings, post messages on collaboration software and participate in ideation actions is not going to help them be creative − and thus help the company innovate. It is only going to squash their creativity.
In fact, most people are at their best with a combination of alone time and collaboration time. In general, people need time to initially develop ideas on their own. They need time to think, time to get away from the office, to go for walks. They need to do a little research to make sure the idea is original and to make sure it is not stupid. Once they have developed the idea and feel confident about it, they are ready to share. At this time, collaboration can build the idea further and kick off its implementation. Without a combination of alone time and collaboration time, big ideas are unlikely to be devised. However, if managers are obsessed with collaboration metrics, that initial alone time will be hard for creative thinkers to find.
As far as productivity measurement goes, the software programmer who spends a day looking out her window thinking about a radical new product idea is seen as unproductive; the programmer who goes for a walk to think through a new function that could improve the efficiency of a complex software tool is unproductive; but the programmer who writes 5000 lines of code before lunch time, is super-productive, at least by most measures of productivity. But what does that really measure? I could write 5000 lines of code before lunch, but it would not be very good code. Indeed, when I handed over Jenni innovation management software (a product I developed years ago) to a team of professional programmers and they saw my code, they nearly cried.
I've seen several blog posts, on how to be successful, which recommend being the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. In some offices, underlings are reluctant to leave before the boss packs up to go home. The guy who arrives at six in the morning and goes home at nine in the evening is a superstar. Why? Really, why? Surely the guy who arrives at ten, focuses on his work and accomplishes incredible stuff by three in the afternoon before going off for a long walk to think about a vexing problem is more interesting than a guy who works long hours e-mailing everyone, calling colleagues, setting up meetings, writing reports and posting on Twitter all day long, without actually producing anything of unique value to the company. Yet who is likely to be perceived as the most productive, best employee? The over-worker, of course, because we measure time over results, especially when those results are rather abstract things like ideas, ways to work more efficiently and solving real problems.
Metrics for Metrics' Sake
The truth is even the collection of most metrics is a waste of time. Participation in idea management software, numbers of ideas collected, participation in collaboration software, meetings attended, lines of code written, number of hours worked, number of vacation days not taken, these metrics are often compiled into colourful graphs and charts to be put into reports and PowerPoint slides. Presentations are made to show that these metrics are going up, which is surely a sign of success. Yet, think about it. If the metrics are worse than useless for measuring things like creativity and innovation, then compiling the metrics is a waste of time. Inviting a dozen people to a one hour meeting to present the metrics is 12 hours of combined wasted time.
Dump the Metrics and Be Brilliant Instead
The truth is, if top management wants an organisation to be innovative; if it wants its employees to have and implement brilliant ideas aligned with strategy; if it wants people to find ways to work more efficiently; if it wants people to think through problems and solve them elegantly, they need to free people from the intellectual and creative constraints imposed upon them by ridiculous metrics. They need to trust their people to be brilliant instead of measuring their mediocrity. Most people will be happy to brilliant if they are given the freedom from metrics.
Like the best con man, metrics inspire confidence, but they are evil and will cheat you of your most precious commodity: your creativity.
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