measurable outcomes, sticks and rulers
Photographer: William Warby | Source: Unsplash

One of the core beliefs of modern management is that if you cannot measure something, either it should not be undertaken or it does not exist. This conviction arises from our faith in the scientific method and the results-oriented outlook of the engineer and the economist. Thus, whenever a change is discussed, there will be an immediate demand for measurable outcomes and hard data that the change will improve the operations.

But what happens when what you value cannot be easily measured?

In fact, many of the things that matter most in your organization defy measurement. Let’s explore how to reframe the cult of measurability in order to ensure you pursue not only what “works” but what matters.

If You Acted On This Definition

If you’re starting with the aim of measurable outcomes, your course of action would include performing research to evaluate the project, and you’d likely bring in independent evaluators to do a pre- and post-intervention study.

Reframing “Measurable Outcomes”

Stop to think. You can measure the impact of a project to the extent that the organization can measure itself, which is a very elusive proposition in a human system. So what about a third party? The problem with bringing in outsiders to evaluate is that the evaluation has its own impact, and this may bring more interference than enlightenment.

Yet the economist in us justly wants to know how much this will cost. The engineer in us needs a test to affirm knowledge, a ruler to mark distance, a clock to demonstrate time. We justly want to know how to measure and know how we are doing. We need to know where we stand. But the question of measurable outcomes ceases to serve us when we think that measurement is so essential to being that we only undertake ventures that can be measured.

Measuring What Matters

Concrete measures can determine progress, but they do not really measure values. We pursue what matters independently of how well we can measure it. It is important to measure what we can, but to raise this question too early, and to use it as a criterion that will determine whether or not to proceed, runs the risk of worshipping too small a god.

What will matter most to us is the quality of experience we create in the world, not the quantity of results.

The real cost of creating something of value is emotional, not economic. What is most valuable cannot be purchased at a discount. The price of change is measured by our effort, our will and courage, and our persistence in the face of difficulty. The shift here is from an economic measure of cost to a personal measure of will.

Dealing With Doubt

It is important to recognize that our obsession with measurement is really an expression of our doubt. Doubt is fine, but no amount of measurement will assuage it. Doubt, or lack of faith, as in religion, is not easily reconciled, even by miracles, let alone by gathering measurable evidence on outcomes.

The wish to measure tightly is the recognition that every project has its own risks. Why not deal with the doubts and risks directly by naming them carefully right from the beginning? We cannot engineer human development, nor can we know it with the precision we might wish for. We can generate some data about the change, but most of it will be putting numbers on people’s feelings–that’s what surveys do. Why not just convene people every once in a while and ask them how it is going? Ultimately, we will know how we are doing by assessing the quality of our experience. If experience is such a good teacher, maybe it also knows how to measure.

To act within this new frame:

  1. Act on what matters, not just what works.
  2. Ensure you pursue what you truly value by asking the “why” questions before asking the “how” questions.
  3. Focus on quality of experience, not just quantity of results.