I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.

William Thomson (aka Lord Kelvin)

Measurement is essential to progress and improvement

Imagine being inside a pitch-black room and asked to walk towards the door. Without knowing where you stand right now, at worst you’d be frozen in place and afraid to move forward. At best you’d be progressing very slowly and cautiously, constantly trying to check if there’s a bump on the floor or an obstacle in your path.

A lot of teams forgo measurement because they fear they are measuring the wrong things. I feel that this is a misguided approach; like everything else in the universe, change will happen. It is better to start measuring something and then finding out that the measurement needs to be changed, rather than not doing any measurements at all.

The act of measuring is in itself an act of learning and that, at the very least, is something of value.

Measure to improve, not to reward or punish

Ask yourself this: why do I want to measure performance?

Many of the managers and entrepreneurs I’ve talked to want to measure performance, because they want to:

  • Have the guarantee that their employees are working
  • Pay salaries or compensation accordingly
  • Calculate bonuses
  • Find out who is under-performing

I feel that this mindset is from a perspective of distrust, and using a measurement to strike fear in the hearts of your team. Worse, you’ll only get people to “game the system” by only focusing on the metrics that you have set, instead of the overall improvement of the company.

The correct mindset is to approach this with the intention of having the team improve itself. When the team knows where they stand, they also know where else they can go and how to become better. Better yet, they become internally motivated to improve themselves and in return you get to reap the benefits.

What NOT to measure

  • Hours in the office (instead of actual work done)
  • Lines of code (instead of feature impact)
  • Meetings attended (instead of valuable contribution)

… You get the idea. There are many measures that even big companies are implementing, but do not apply to knowledge workers (like your tech team).

As Dan Pink in this TED Talk mentioned, carrots and sticks (extrinsic motivators) worked fine for many kinds of Industrial Age tasks.

But for the Information Age (especially with software development) where there aren’t any simple rules and clear goals, these measurements are simply too narrow and restrictive. By measuring these, you’re practically telling your team that “I’m only interested in the number of hours I see you in the office.”

Measure results, not activity

That way, your team can exercise their creativity in reaching the results, instead of being constrained with the specific activities you only think will get you to that result.

This is part one of a two-part series on measuring performance. Stay tuned for part two, where I suggest items that can be a very good proxy for performance.

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