Winning Well – Escape the Metrics Maze

By Karin Hurt and David Dye

“Please go online and complete the survey at the bottom of your receipt. I get punished if I get a score lower than a 10.”

If you’ve made a purchase at a big box retailer in the last year, you’ve probably heard these words as you were handed the receipt. It’s an example of metrics gone amok. Rather than focus on the customer service behaviors that would naturally produce a high score, the cashier, no doubt under pressure from her manager, resorted to emotional manipulation.

When Measurement Misses

Metrics matter. A balanced scorecard, with well-selected key performance indicators, will reinforce your strategy and align actions with goals. But these measurements can also be a trap for many managers.

Imagine that you go to the doctor and are told that your blood pressure is high. The doctor prescribes a medication, change in diet, and more exercise. Assuming you are motivated to get healthy, what would you do when you leave the doctor’s office?

You might go to a pharmacy, fill your prescription, and then head home. Once you got there, you might evaluate what food you have on hand and make a shopping list that includes whole grains, lean meats, and vegetables. You might take a walk and start an exercise plan.

Now imagine instead that you leave the doctor’s office and first go to a medical supply store, pick up a blood pressure cuff, then head home and start taking your own blood pressure every 15 minutes. Your blood pressure is still high, and now you’re stressed; you’ve got to achieve results! So you start taking your blood pressure every ten minutes, only to see your blood pressure rise even higher.

No healthy person does this with his or her blood pressure, but when it comes to leading business teams, managers do it all the time. They obsess on the score because they mistake the number for what it represents. Your blood pressure score is an indicator of health—it’s not health itself. It’s vital for every manager to understand that measurements are not what you do; measurement represents what you do.

Your customer doesn’t care what you received on your internal scorecard. No employee can concentrate on 27 metrics at a time. Effective leaders pick a few meaningful measurements that encourage the right behaviors and make it tough to manipulate the stats just to get a short-term lift with no real improvement.

However, many managers get caught in a metrics maze of unintended consequences and drive their teams to unnatural behaviors, trying to artificially adjust scores.

Use Data to Drive, Not Drown, Your Team

There are four ways you can use data effectively and escape the metrics maze:

1. Know what matters.

Your scores don’t really matter. They are there to help you and your managers make decisions, but the scores don’t matter.

What is truly significant? There is one surefire way to find out. Ask: What does your customer or client care about?

They care about their results. For example:

  • How long do they have to wait?
  • Can they get their issues resolved to their satisfaction?
  • Does your product work and meet their need the way they expect?
  • Are they able to do what they expect when they use your service?

When people focus on what actually matters the scores will naturally improve.

2. Know the key behaviors that produce real results.

There are core sets of behaviors that allow your team to achieve results and sustain them over time.

If you’re a nonprofit fundraising director, your key behaviors might include:

  • Build relationships with donors.
  • Ask them to support the cause.
  • Thank them in varied and meaningful ways.

If you’re a convenience store retail manager, your key behaviors might include:

  • Keep products stocked.
  • Make sure the store is clean and neat.
  • Don’t let customers wait in a line longer than three people.

If you’re a customer-service call-center supervisor, your key behaviors might include:

  • Huddle with your team each day to connect and communicate.
  • Listen to calls and provide balanced performance feedback.
  • Get involved to help resolve the toughest customer concerns.

Whatever your business, there are always key behaviors that drive your meaningful results. Do you know yours?

3. Emphasize key behaviors (not the score).

Like a good drummer, managers keep the beat for the team. Everyone can play their parts when your leaders keep time and anchor their people in what really matters and emphasize the key behaviors.

“This is how we succeed: we do A, B, and C.” All your communication—in team meetings, in one-on-ones, in email—everything must emphasize these core practices.

When you do discuss metrics, put them in terms of the key behaviors. For example, “When we do A, B, and C every day, we will be in the top 10 percent of the rankings. We will get the revenue we need to serve our clients. We will maintain 80-percent-plus repeat visits.”

4. Check the score at appropriate intervals.

How often should you check your metrics? The answer is: as often as necessary to keep you on track and no more than that.

If you’re working to lower your blood pressure, checking it every hour is too much. Twice a day for the first week might be appropriate because it’s the trend over time that tells you something meaningful.

For your business, a good guideline is to think about how long it will take you to see results when you implement a change. If you make a change today, will you see results in a day? A week? A month? Six months?

Different businesses have different time frames. Check the score often enough to confirm positive results or to catch problems when something changes, but no more than that.

Remember, business metrics are a useful tool when kept in their proper perspective. You’ll get the best results and avoid wasted energy to game the system when you help your people stay focused on what matters most and measure just enough to stay on course.

Karin Hurt is a leadership consultant and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers.

David Dye is a former nonprofit executive, elected official, and president of Trailblaze, Inc., a leadership training and consulting firm.

They are authors of Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide To Getting Results – Without Losing Your Soul (

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