Greg Owen


Be careful what you measure

Further to my last post about making a personal shift and thinking about what a post-lockdown world looks like, I’ve been thinking a lot about measurement and how, especially in business or work, we like to measure things. It strikes me that we live in a world that has a growing obsession with measurement and ‘data’, or factual knowledge. I like measurement, it can be extremely helpful and insightful, but generally speaking there’s always something that doesn’t sit well with me when we get too wrapped up in measured output. There’s just something about it that feels counter, and dare I say reductive, to the human experience that denies the story and experience within it.

As a creative and business leader measurement forms a huge part of my day to day. Keeping track of people and project progress, budgets, profit and loss, quality of work, etc.

A long time ago I came across this saying which is from some business management book (I think) and I’ve heard it pedalled many a time;

‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’.

I never really knew what it meant, but now I run a business I understand it more.

When you create hierarchical structures that require reporting and factual evidence to support and validate a position, of course you need to measure it. Numbers that tell a story about a goal achieved can be extremely helpful and insightful. Otherwise how do we know, right? But what if that whole idea is at odds with the new world of work, and counter intuitive to creating places that the younger generation or workers need to make their contribution. I’m utterly convinced that it’s in our collective ability to get creative, collaborate and innovate that will enable us to navigate the complexities of this emerging world of people and computers living together. Never has there been a time where we need to behave less like computers and more like humans. Any never has there been a time where working together is more necessary to solve the problems we face.

Coming from a sporting background, measurement ruled my world. The figure on my pay check (in relation to others), my playing statistics, goals, assists, +/- rating, strength and fitness, ice time, all these things were what on paper validated my worth and offered some form of validation for what as an individual I was capable of. You can show someone my stats and they’ll paint a picture for you. But there’s a lot that stats can’t tell you. For instance it couldn’t tell you about my character, or my impact within a team, or how I was able perform in high pressured and key situations. It couldn’t tell you about my work ethic, or how well I practised, the affect I had on others or the kind of team mate I was. And that’s what’s dangerous about measurement. We can easily treat them as if they hold all the answers, and they’re hard to argue with – numbers talk. But it’s not all about numbers is it.

When I think back to the successful teams I’ve been a part of, and I’ve been lucky to be part of a few, statistics, whether they be individual or team were really only used as a way to understand and make sense of results. They were used to validate successes and rationalise failures. They were used to promote specific values and enforce certain positive behaviours that were believed to be the foundation of success. They taught us to care about certain things, as they wouldn’t go unnoticed. They created a layer of accountability which was necessary. I’ve also seen an ugly side to that. I’ve seen team mates prioritise they’re own statistics in favour of the team objective so they come out looking good. Place too much emphasis on a particular statistic or measurement and some undesired behaviours can emerge as a result.

As someone who has entered the ‘normal’ world of work later in life, I’ve got very little way of knowing how I measure up. I’ve not been in it or around it long enough to learn the lexicon of business management speak. Or had the importance of reporting figures handed down through layers of management. I’ve no long list of previous employers or leaders to measure myself up against and learn from. I see that as a good thing, but it does pose some difficulty when positioned against that experience. I do on the other hand, value my position and varied experience that enables me to see it for what it is. What I do see however, is that the most successful companies are leading from a strong set of values that transcend any kind of statistic or KPI (although don’t get me wrong, a business has to be viable first). And it’s true that the more experiences we become in any particular way, the more entrenched we become in those views and are then less able to accept ideas that are new and original. (Read Originals by Adam Grant)

So perhaps in thinking this through I’m really asking myself a deeper question about what I value. What ground do I stand on. As I look out into the world and explore the businesses and organisations that inspire me, the more I see cultures and environments that put extreme value in creative and collaborative practices and behaviours. They’re creating conditions and environments for their people to show up as themselves and do their best work. And that doesn’t always look the same. It looks easy, but I’m sure it’s not. Maybe that’s why it’s more unusual to see. Perhaps there’s a certain bravery or courage that’s required to step out and live out values and resist the temptation to follow the herd.

So as lockdown measures ease, and the muscle memory of the pre-COVID world kicks in, I sure hope we’re able to get courageous and start measuring ourselves against our values and something greater and more meaningful than just bottom line success.

What a challenge.