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  • Writer's pictureCraig Risi

Making Metrics work for you

Those who have worked with me know that I have a strange love for metrics. If something can be measured, I will and if there is a way of representing it in a nice colourful dashboard, I will do that too. I love dashboards and especially in creating sprawling visuals which help to map out and make sense of all the metrics and data I am looking to track.

In all of my use of metrics though, I have also learnt to apply context to everything. Just because something can be measured or tracked, doesn’t mean it should or sometimes that your metrics are telling the full story. The biggest mistake I have seen managers do is trying and identify metrics that can identify the health of the company and then use those said metrics to identify and measure its improvement. The problem with this approach is that they tend to forget that metrics only tell a part of a narrative and that you need to read the full narrative to truly understand the story.

Not all metrics are equal

One of the things we try and do in measuring metrics is to define points across the board that we can compare with each other. The problem is that metrics mean different things to different people/teams. Just because one metric works in measuring progress in one team, doesn’t mean it will work in another. You need to understand the product and the team first to better understand the complexities of what they do and then either identify metrics that are relevant to that team or at least identify a set of success criteria that make sense to where they currently are.

Secondly, once you’ve identified what metrics are important, you then want to use these metrics to try and find gaps or areas for improvement – you need to also understand why a team’s metrics are the way they are.  Something that may look immediately bad or deficient may have a whole history behind it that has led it to be at this point. Understanding this history might tell you more about these gaps and improvement areas than any history will do and so again, these metrics might be important, but their combined story is even more important.

You can measure too much – focus on context

Counter to figuring out the right things to measure, we can err on deciding to measure everything and use all this data to hopefully discover unknown problems and solutions for them. The problem with this is that you get lost in the details. Metrics work in their simplicity. Think of driving a car, it’s great to know what speed you’re doing, how much fuel you have left in your car and possibly the temperature of the engine as well. Having dashboard items for current torque, horsepower, traction, g-force or power to mass ratio in your car might be interesting, but they are unlikely to help most people and will often just confuse them and they will forget to focus on what they should be – their speed limit. In the same way, when we measure too much, we tend to overwhelm ourselves with information and end up getting lost in it all rather than finding treat insight.

My experience over the years has been to rather identify only a few things I want to measure – analyses its usefulness over a short period of time and then if something doesn’t bring in the required value, get rid of it and try something different. It’s an iterative process, but one that I have found leads to more tangible and relevant metrics than just throwing all your data at you and seeing what comes out.

Focusing on a problem you are trying to solve is often the best way of helping you identify the metrics you should be looking for and perhaps even on how much importance you should place on the different metrics. If you are just tracking something for no reason, it's probably a good time to ditch those metrics and rather find something that might be of more value to you in solving your current business problem.

Humans don’t work off statistics

One obvious issue with relying too much on metrics is the people factor. Humans are emotional beings and need to be treated as such. You can use metrics to track and measure progress in an individual, but again its only part of their narrative and you need to focus on the other efforts and soft skills a person possesses and their individual background as well. We are always told how each person is different and then we somehow decide to find numbers to measure them in the same way. It just doesn’t work. Yes, you need some metrics to ensure a person is doing certain aspects of the job, but make the effort to understand their human story as well and use the data as part of their story and not their entire story.

Metrics remain one of the most valuable tools that you will ever have at your disposal as a business leader. Just remember to keep your intuition and people skills in check in the way you apply them and search for the context and purpose of your metrics to truly gauge what you are looking for and you will be in a position to use metrics successfully in advancing your team or business. 



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