The Problem with Metrics

by Tim Kastelle

The Problem with MetricsI’ve always been a numbers guy. Growing up, I was always pretty good at math. And I enjoyed it – when I went off I thought I wanted to be a math major (until I figured out that at least at my university, all of the math majors were a bit off in the head (and, also, way smarter than me)). I ended up majoring in economics because the math parts of it were attractive.

So it pains me when I have to say that in business, our attempts at measurement are often ill-founded. Many times we end up using numbers as a defense against ambiguity and uncertainty. Most of the time, instead of trying to measure things, we might be better off just getting more comfortable with these states – because bad numbers are worse than no numbers.

I was reminded of this during a conversation last week with a guy with whom I occasionally collaborate. He was bragging about how his company had 5,000 followers on twitter, and that they had hired a social media consultant that was adding 300 followers a week.

Pretty impressive numbers.

Except that I know that they’re garbage. They often end up tweeting about posts of mine, and the net result of all this activity in terms of traffic is…. nothing. They have 5,000 followers, but none of them are taking any action as near as I can tell.

This reflects the problem with having only one goal, in this case, followers. If you only have one goal, and it isn’t aligned with your overall strategy, you’ll fail to achieve your aims.

The main points with metrics are:

  • Don’t mistake metrics for what we’re actually trying to measure: metrics are proxies – especially if we are trying to measure something abstract like innovation, or the quality of universities. So don’t get too hung up on your metrics – concentrate on your overall goal.
  • Align metrics with strategy: no one really wants twitter followers. You want something else – influence, or interaction, or something that one way or another actually does you some good. The interim steps are important, but don’t only measure these. You also need to figure out a way to measure the outcomes of your strategy.
  • Use multiple measures of success: this follows from the first two points. Most of the things that we really care about are hard to actually measure. If we are going to try, we need to use multiple measures so that we can triangulate on our desired objectives.

But sometimes, even if you follow all these tips, even if you’re a numbers guy (or girl) like me, you just have to really think hard about whether or not you’re on the right track. That’s often hard to measure, but surprisingly simple to figure out.


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Tim KastelleTim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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