What is Our Metric for Progress?

April 26, 2009

Yesterday I was listening to a presentation about lean startups and a topic in the presentation really struck a chord with me.  The presenter was talking about measuring progress and how frequently progress is measured in ways that are totally incorrect.  Such an obvious observation in hindsight but one that I had never made.  Hello dots, meet your new friends the connections.

Immediately I started thinking about all of the projects that I’ve worked on and tried to identify how progress was measured on each one.  The most disastrous project had a huge specification jammed down the throats of the developers and progress for that project was measured by how much of the specification was implemented.  There wasn’t much about this project that felt right, but the self centered metric for measuring progress should have been the biggest indicator of failure.  At least 10 man years were spent on that project, it never made any money and has now been shut down.

The next project I worked on at that company was one of my own making.  Personally I was measuring progress by how much the company was able to innovate.  Admittedly that too was a stupid metric because you can have progress without anyone else caring. Consequently while the site is still around, the original projects on it were a bit of a flash in the pan and died a slow death.

More recently I was working on a project that had a pretty clear metric for progress, traffic.  But I suspect that this metric was a bit too vanilla and thus provided little value.  However, the bigger problem was that different parties had different metrics for progress.  Our group was measuring traffic and saying that generating more of it was the most important thing to work on.  While the CEO was measuring our progress by how much money we were making, which was none.  So it strikes me that not only is it important to have a good metric for progress, it’s something that all parties need to agree upon.

So I feel like a real idiot.  I strongly believe that asking questions is a fundamental part of making anything that’s successful.  I’m not talking about asking random questions, I’m taking about asking the hard questions and having the endless curiosity to ask why.  But I feel like I’ve neglected to ask the hardest and seemingly most important question of, what is our metric for progress.

So today I’m thinking about all of the other aspects of my life and it’s surprisingly refreshing to realize the places where I’ve been measuring the wrong thing.

A simple example.  When I started climbing I measured my progress by how hard of a climb I could complete.  Typical male stupidity.  That metric had me focusing on pure strength instead of technique which has caused me a tremendous amount of physical pain.  Or take this blog for example.  It’s very easy to measure my progress by looking at beautiful charts that tell me how many people are reading what I’m writing.  But is that really what I’m after?  No.  I’m just trying to share things in my life with those that are interested, not make more people interested in my life.

When taking a macro look at the things around me I really start to wonder what metrics are being used in other areas.  What’s being measured when we bail out banks and automotive companies?  Simply not dying?  How about the housing market?  More homes being purchased?  What about the economy as a whole?  Please tell me we aren’t using the stock market.

I’m hoping like crazy that someone in a position of power has answers to those questions.  But even if we have the metrics, what I fear is that the people in power don’t agree or even communicate what they are.  What would happen if every law we passed had to have a metric of success tied to it and we voted on both the law and the metric?  Then we would have real data that can be used to decide if the removal of our rights as Americans has a proportional increase in our safety.

Humm… much to think about.

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One Response to “What is Our Metric for Progress?”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Where are you these days??? I demand more from a blogger!


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