I’m a numbers guy. I like measuring my performance, tracking progress, and holding myself and my team accountable to metric-driven goals… until I don’t. I’m also a people-person. I don’t want my contribution to be defined by a figure. I hate it when metrics drive bad behavior. I care about culture and the health of my team a lot more than next quarter’s target.
In one breath, I champion the need for data-driven decision-making, and in the next, I criticize a decision to manage to the numbers. So, which is it? Who am I? Am I of two minds or one? Before I answer that, let’s explore the tension further.
It’s all about uptime
I come from an IT operations background. If there’s one metric that matters in operations, it’s uptime. Uptime is typically defined as a series of nines. One app might have an availability target of three nines, or 99.9% uptime. Another one might be four nines, or 99.99% uptime. To see how much downtime that equates to, check out this handy uptime calculator: https://uptime.is
An organization will choose to adopt uptime as a Key Performance Indicator if downtime is chronic and painful for the customers. So, you add this focus, then what happens? You get exactly what you want: more uptime. That’s good, right? Maybe.
Here’s what happens next: if uptime is king, then everything that threatens uptime must be minimized. What is the number one threat to uptime? Change. Managing uptime for an unchanging system is easy. It’s Newton’s First Law of Motion, often simply stated as “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” When it comes to IT operations, that unbalanced force is the next code change coming out of the development organization.
It’s all about the quota
I recently read a job posting for a sales position at a technology company that I highly respect. I found the word “quota” and synonyms referenced eight times in the posting. It was seriously peppered throughout it. There can be no doubt that the company cares about quota, quota, quota, quota, quota, quota, quota, and don’t forget quota. Additionally, there were other several other references to “hunting” and “killing.”
As a customer and buyer of technology, I’d rather not feel like a number and certainly not like prey. Why should I be surprised when I feel this way when a company not only manages their teams this way, but openly advertises these priorities to the public via their job postings?
The law of unintended consequences
I picked these two examples, but I could have picked from dozens off the top of my head. Whether it’s time-tracking, charge-backs, lines of code, deploys per day, or any other metric, chances are good there’s a dark side to the intended outcome. In short, this comes down to the law of unintended consequences. I trust that we have pure motives for creating metrics and incentives that drive a positive change in behavior. Often, there is a nasty unwanted behavior that comes along for the ride. Sometimes the unwanted behavior is worse than the positive behavior that we get, and we would have been better off doing nothing at all.
I’m fan of Behavioral Economics. I find it fascinating to discover how conventional wisdom is wrong and the truth can be found by exploring the unexpected linkage between cause and effect. Some of my favorite books on the topic include Freakonomics by Steven Levitt, The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris, The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, and every book by Malcolm Gladwell. Not being a trained Behavioral Economist myself, I’m not equipped to find conclusive answers, but it at least makes me ask the questions.
If I’m nailing my metrics, but failing to meet a higher-level objective, then I’ve failed. If I achieve my uptime targets, but obstruct change to do so, I’ve failed. If I achieve my sales quota, but treat my customers like prey, then I’ve failed. If I ignore metrics, then I’m really flying blind, and I also fail.
Metrics, by definition, are specific and usually tactical. Metrics are good, but we must subordinate them to the higher goals, which are often more difficult to measure. As an internal IT service provider, I want my business to feel like we are an integral partner that adds tremendous strategic and differentiating value to the core mission of the company.
That’s a little hard to measure. It’s easier to measure uptime and quotas. Sure, go ahead and keep measuring those things, but hold them in the proper weight and perspective. Be skeptical, and watch out for evidence of unintended consequences. Keep your rhetoric and behavior focused on your mission, vision, and values.
Do you have a love-hate relationship with metrics? Share your stories in the comments below.