In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal. – Bill Gates

Measuring results is one of the drivers of success in business. Most of us agree with that point. Yet, many organizations struggle to consistently create objectives that are measurable and then actually measure the results of campaigns, programs, and projects. In this  article I’ll make the case for measurement and explore some of the reasons that measurement is harder than it sounds.

Measurement provides critical feedback. Measurement allows inventors to see if incremental design changes lead to improvements. It allows marketers to learn whether customers responded favorably to the latest campaign. Measurement allows managers to assess whether a business objective has been satisfied. Without it, true progress is doomed to be rare and erratic.

Measurable objectives provide important additional benefits: alignment and clarity. When objectives are stated in terms of measurable goals, a great deal of ambiguity is removed. People have a clearer understanding of what is being communicated. To see this in action, take an objective from your organization and define a measure of success for it. You’ll often be surprised by how many different interpretations people had of the objective. A success measure brings clarity and leads to alignment on what needs to be accomplished. Here’s an example:

  • Improve customer satisfaction
  • Improve customer satisfaction by increasing the average monthly satisfaction score from 3.2 to within the range of 4.3- 4.8.

In one of my previous roles as Chief Operating Officer of a growing consulting firm, I was responsible for ensuring that our company was a great place to work. Our employee satisfaction survey pointed to a challenge with career development. So, we set a measurable objective to improve the average career development scores.

We formed a team and went to work right away. The team pulled together focus groups. Brainstormed ideas. Prioritized them. Put them in action. Asked for feedback. Enthusiasm on the team was high and everyone worked hard, confident that we were making an important difference.

After the changes to career development were rolled out and put into action, we conducted another employee satisfaction survey. To our surprise, career development scores increased slightly but were still far below our goal. While we were disappointed by this, we knew that our work was not yet complete. We began another round of feedback and improvements.

From my viewpoint as a leader, the career development improvements certainly felt successful. My intuition told me that the changes would be well received and make a big difference. We had a great team that had done great work with a lot of input from across the firm. Without measurement, I would certainly have declared success and considered our objective complete. Deep down, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to celebrate success and move on to tackle another opportunity. But, measurement kept us grounded to real progress. We expressed gratitude to the team for all their hard work, but we knew we had to keep going.

It is incredible how often measurement is not done and how difficult it is to get it right. No one would disagree with the concept of measurement, and yet many times it fails to happen. I believe there are several reasons for this. In the rush to get results, many people believe there isn’t enough time to create measurable objectives and measure progress. Further, many people haven’t been trained to define objectives well. And, measurement requires the trust and courage to be accountable for true results and outcomes—not just effort and execution.

Working on a high-priority objective can feel like a pressure cooker. We need those results and we needed them yesterday. We’re behind the competition. The window of opportunity is closing. Little wonder that creating measurable objectives is overlooked. Most teams rush headlong into execution, intensely focused on the drive for results. If someone proposes measurement, it is often shot down for fear of the extra time and attention required to define it and get people to agree. But, measurable objectives can be created quickly. In most cases, this shouldn’t take longer than a day to complete.

Many objectives are written poorly simply because leadership was never trained on how to do this well. Defining objectives isn’t something that is taught in most business schools. Much time is spent on strategy: less time on translating strategy into execution. Consider the prevalence of objectives that mix the ends and the means. For example: “build a new contact center” (the means) versus “respond to customer inquiries within 5 minutes while maintaining average Net Promoter Score of 65% or higher.” (the ends). Objectives should always define the ends, the outcomes, rather than the means to achieve them.

Measurement requires courage. When you define measurable objectives and measure results, you’re on the hook for true progress. It’s no longer possible to massage or spin the results to declare victories that aren’t really there. For most of us, this level of transparency and accountability can feel uncomfortable or scary. It engages what Seth Godin calls the Lizard Brain—the ancient core of the brain that is associated with fight or flight instincts. So many people crave the intrinsic satisfaction of doing work that matters, of contributing to real progress, of knowing they made a difference. This is where organizational culture and leadership is critical. Leaders must create an environment and build relationships based on trust. They must help others overcome their apprehension with accountability and measurable results. If they do, they not only enable real progress but they also enable more people to benefit from the intrinsic satisfaction that comes from doing work that truly matters.

So, the next time you’re about to begin another marketing campaign, kick off a strategic program or project, or communicate strategic objectives to your organization, take a step back and consider measurement. The small amount of time you invest here will pay tremendous dividends. If you are already creating measurable objectives and measuring results, please share your experiences and ideas. What is working well? What has been the greatest obstacle? The greatest benefit?

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