Metrics tell us where we are, and where we’re going, and the more we can measure things the better off we’ll be. Or will we?
“An eight-pound baby is worth, at birth, $362 a pound,” declared the New York Times on January 30th, 1910. “That is a child’s value as a potential wealth-producer. If he lives out the normal term of years, he can produce $2900 more wealth than it costs to rear him and maintain him as an adult.”
The quote above comes from Eli Cook in the Atlantic, who dug it up for a history of money as the measure of everything. In its harshest terms, using metrics to measure the worth of a person, or of a project or a team, can appear to be the enemy of all things good. Metrics “ask” the wrong questions—is it ever a good idea to assess the monetary value of a baby?—and lead to worse outcomes: the company pursuing profit over the welfare of its workers, or the school pursuing test scores over thinking skills or exercise or play.
But metrics, of course, also give us clarity. We can set targets and meet them: a sales goal, a GDP, a literacy rate. Metrics tell us where we are, and where we’re going, and the more we can measure things the better off we’ll be. Or will we?
Let’s start with the metrics of yesterday. In the world of tech support, the number of tickets closed—and the time it took to close them—often belies how many problems were actually fixed. In marketing, the number of online impressions usually means nothing without numbers that quantify engagement. As Robert Wolcott writes in the Harvard Business Review, automakers’ obsession with unit sales is outdated. As more people buy fewer cars but use shared cars more often, the higher-margin industry of maintenance and replacement parts is bound to grow:
“To those in the pro-metrics camp, the lesson here is simple: Focus on the right metrics, not the ones you’ve always used.”
Metrics as fashion
University of Toronto management guru Roger Martin recently declared that he was “getting weary of the Objective & Key Results (OKRs) hype-train.” The OKR approach, as he helpfully explains, “involves setting an audacious objective and then laying out 3–5 specific, measurable and timebound key results that serve as indicators that you are on track to meet your objective.”
Martin claims that OKRs have become “an implicit substitute” for strategy, and not what they should be—which, in his view, is a complement to strategy. One can set OKRs, but that leaves aside the question of whether your organization is actually capable of meeting your objective, never mind that an OKR focus can have you thinking that naming desired results will make you more likely to achieve them—which is not necessarily so.
Martin’s confession bolstered my belief that the best way to think about any metric beyond what you’d find on a standard P&L is as fashion. They perform a function, just as any pair of trousers do. Fashionable trousers, however, signal something that unfashionable trousers don’t: that the wearer is paying attention to their surroundings, and can afford to keep up with trends. Talking metrics can have the same effect: Speak of your Cost of Customer Acquisition, and you appear to be on top of things, peering into details, aware of where value is added. And there is a real benefit to that; metrics can help you communicate your value to others, as well as validate your own suspicions or hopes.
But there is nothing magic about knowing your MQLs (marketing qualified lead) per month or SQLs (sales qualified leads). One should feel free not to engage using those terms—especially when older, plainer terms communicate the situation perfectly well—just as one might elect not to don low-rise jeans despite them reportedly coming back into fashion.
The best argument for thinking of metrics as fashion, however, is that if your aspiration is to add something of beauty, value, and longevity to the world, engaging in conversations about metrics prematurely may be hostile to your process.
If you’re already prone to a scarcity mindset, to fear, or to unhealthy competition, adopting metrics that aren’t really your style may hurt more than help. As designer Zeynab Izadyar remarked to the Creative Independent earlier this year, true artistic freedom—and for her, commercial success—followed her going deeper within, not looking to external signals: “As I got closer to myself and more comfortable with myself, I got more comfortable about working with what connects with me. Surprisingly, this honesty connected with some people very well—obviously not everybody, but it’s not supposed to. Nothing is supposed to connect with everybody.”
You will never have enough information. Experiment. Pay attention to what feels good to you.
This is an excerpt of the Beauty Shot newsletter by the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community with an annual gathering in Lisbon that brings together leaders and changemakers with the mission to humanize business in an age of machines.
Cover Image: Ryoji Iwata/Unsplash