The Devastating Mistake You Should Never Make With Metrics

What happens when the metric turns into the objective? It can have a devasting impact. Let’s look.

I’m going to talk about an example regarding grades in school and then expand the conversation to metrics in business.

How Do We Measure Learning Success In Schools?

Kids do not get grades during the early years of school – kindergarten, and perhaps the first couple of elementary school years. But then, increasingly, we use grades to measure how well students learned what the teachers taught them. 

Our son is in eighth grade now. In principle, he loves learning – at least, the things he wants to learn. The other day, we actually had fun learning the periodic table together. I say “actually” because teenagers are often not prone to enjoying working with their parents on school-related matters. I let him quiz me (which helps him learn the material); then, I questioned him. (He says he enjoyed challenging me more than the other way around. LOL)

Shortly after that, he took the science quiz about this topic. He did well. Soon after that, I offered we could practice it some more. Our son said the exam was done, so he didn’t need to study it anymore. 

On some level, I know I “shouldn’t” be shocked about his answer. So many students study mainly to get good grades. My son told me that, too. When the quest to get a good grade is over, the material doesn’t matter anymore. It’s on to the next thing. 

In truth, our kids get a lot of grades. Nine grades per subject per nine-week term. Wow! This system of metrics seems to foster the very thing I am experiencing with our son. 

What type of feedback do parents get about how the success of their youngsters in school? Grades

What do they talk about most when it comes to school? Unfortunately, the conversation often focuses on grades because kids may not share much about what they learn. Grades are often the most tangible thing parents see. Besides, high school is coming, and then it’s “game on.” All those grades will follow the kid around and determine his future opportunities. 

Putting on my idealist hat here for a moment, going to school should be about 

  • Learning valuable knowledge, 
  • Learning how to learn (which is even more critical since knowledge expands and evolves rapidly)
  • Learning to be and work with other people (kids and adults)
  • Sparking new interests
  • Athletics

A Quick Sidebar: My Philosophy About School (And Anything You Spend Much Time On)

While many kids I went to school with didn’t like school, I did. For about 13 years of our life, we spend roughly a third of our life during the school years (not to mention college and graduate school, which can add another 2-8 years!). I didn’t want to waste all that time and decided to love school. There were many opportunities to learn intriguing subjects and get involved in exciting projects. Not everything is equally fun, of course, yet, most things are interesting if you approach them from that mindset.

My point is this: Grades are supposed to be a metric for how well students are doing. Yet, if getting good grades becomes the primary (or even sole) purpose, we all miss the mark! The metric becomes the objective. Yikes!

Just as I decided to love school, I invite you to love what you do. Or, if you don’t love it, find something you do care about. In the meantime, I encourage you to find as many positive things about what you need to do as you can.

What About Metrics In Business?

Constantly, we see shocking statistics. A recent Gallup report stated 64% of employees are unengaged at work. They work to earn money to feed themselves and their families. They work solely because they have to. 

You will probably improve performance if you set metrics, track them, and incentivize people to meet them. 

Yet, it doesn’t take much for metrics to backfire. For example:

  • Salespeople study their compensation plans and “sandbag” deals to optimize their pay (i.e., they hold them back until they get paid the most for them). Of course, the company would have loved to onboard these deals as soon as possible.
  • Revenue-based metrics may lead to people bringing in low-profit deals, deals that lose money, or work not in the company’s sweet spot.

Are Metrics Bad?

What am I saying then? Metrics are bad? No, metrics are essential. “Whatever you measure improves,” is the saying. 

Yet, let’s be careful in the design of your metrics. 

  • Avoid unintended consequences.
  • Make sure your team buys into the underlying reasons for the metrics. 
    • The objective is learning. We attempt to measure how well a student learned via tests and grades.
    • Selling success is measured via metrics, but the goal is selling enough of the right products or services at the right price.
  • Let’s make sure the metric doesn’t become the objective!

I’m Curious

  • How do you use metrics?
  • How do you ensure they accomplish what you want and avoid potential “backfiring”?

Live Brilliantly,

Dr. Stephie

P.S.: I appreciate you commenting and sharing this Brilliance Nugget with others. Thank you!

Stephie Althouse

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