Measure the Right Activities to Achieve Goals in Government and Elsewhere

Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

–William Bruce Cameron

I recently sat in an organizational meeting perplexed by the degree to which our group’s ultimate objectives had been slowly commandeered by seemingly-inconsequential measurements and goals. We’d lost sight of the forest for the trees—over a period of a few years, and quite inadvertently, we had become sidetracked from focusing on critical outcomes by instead measuring observable, yet less-important activities. Ironically, not only were we falling short of the unimportant goals, but our overall progress toward the ultimate objective was also conspicuously declining. 

Social science has repeatedly shown that ‘measuring and reporting’ significantly improves performance. But sustainable success assumes the activities we’re spending our time measuring are the activities that are most important to the outcomes we seek. At times, particularly as our capacity to collect and analyze data continues to improve, the act of measurement can unfortunately become an end unto itself.  All too commonly, we turn our focus to the measurement of activities that are not fundamental to ultimate objectives—so, even if we improve the performance of an activity, we may not get closer to achieving the desired outcome. Worse, we may actually move further away from eventual success.

This paradox is evident in many aspects of our lives.  Consider, for instance, the number of us who use apps to track caloric intake, prioritizing activities that look good on the scale but that may ultimately diminish overall health.  Similarly, government may place disproportionate emphasis on counting the number of beds or meals provided to homeless individuals and then, in an effort to improve in those isolated measurements, create systems that essentially perpetuate the root causes of homelessness.  In education, policymakers and concerned citizens alike yearn to equip students with the confidence that originates from improved achievement and capacity for complex thinking. But we somehow end up with brokered compromises that lower standards in our short-sighted attempts to simply improve measurable graduation rates.  Even faith-based organizations display this tendency—they genuinely aspire to improve lives, but then divert significant attention to merely counting meeting attendance and other observable, less-consequential activity.

Measurement drives performance.  Measurement matters.  So how do we avoid the unintended pitfalls of measurement?  First, in any activity or endeavor, it behooves us to start with objectives in mind, and then smartly and very deliberately work backwards to identify the measurable milestones and activities needed to achieve the ultimate outcome.  It is vital that we not allow ourselves to become distracted by opportunities to measure things that are not germane to the desired result.   

Second, we should collect data not only with the intent to track improvement, but also to continuously determine which efforts are best moving us toward the final objectives.  And, we must not forget that not all measurement is quantifiable.  Many times, encouraging feedback from diverse perspectives can overcome the echo chamber effect and provide invaluable qualitative data for elevating performance.

Finally, we must populate our groups with what the author Patrick Lencioni calls “CROs,” which stands for “Chief Reminding Officers.”  CROs acknowledge the value of measurement and account for measurement’s imperfections.  Their primary role is to constantly beat the drum of the main objectives and vision.  Measurement is merely a medium; transformational leaders leverage its strengths and account for its weaknesses by constantly focusing their communication on the ultimate objectives. 

Whether the goal is improving personal health, helping the impoverished, or augmenting student learning, keys to success involve measuring the right activities, learning from what measurement indicates, and diligently championing the ultimate outcomes.  Otherwise, measurement can inadvertently overwhelm even the smartest of strategies or purest of intents, sidetracking well-meaning individuals and organizations from achieving their true purposes.