Measuring What Matters Is Where Improvement Comes From

Photo by Alexa Wirth on Unsplash

To answer the question of how well is to engage in the art of measurement.

Depending on the intended use, a basic purchase like a laptop computer requires measuring and comparing RAM size, storage capacity, size and resolution of display, battery life, among others. Within the limits of our budget, its how we make the choice of one over the other — we measure and compare.

Bill Gates wrote in the 2013 Annual Letter for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve amazing progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal… This may seem pretty basic, but it is amazing to me how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.”

Measurement drives improvement. And its no surprise we now have an array of metrics to measure just about anything.

From the simple to the sophisticated, qualitative as well as quantitative, we can measure how far, how long, how big, how high. Everything from speed, to momentum, to energy, to endurance, to pulse, and even online engagement, with the inevitable result of huge mass of data — numbers, comparisons and indicators — that yields insight on performance. It’s how we’ve arrived at a world where its most valuable resource is no longer oil but data.

Measurement is important, and rightly so. But a potentially dangerous flaw often gets overlooked.

The main problem of measurement, when a million different things can be measured, is that we can only measure so much before our cognitive scope limitation inevitably kicks in.

We can measure far more things than we have cognitive scope for, such that even for the best of us, there is only so much information our mind can process, store and respond to before we ram into the upper bound of our cognitive scope, and begin our descent to drowning in the sea of data.

However, a wonderful realization is that: not everything that can be measured matters. For any system, there are only a handful of key metrics that really deserves our limited attention. This is the idea of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), traditionally used in business.

There’s KPIs in business, in academics, in health, and in life, in general. It’s how we evaluate how well something is doing — we measure and compare.

For improvement in any thing: weight loss, writing, overall health and wellness, success at work, at school, on Medium — we must not just seek out performance indicators, we must seek out the key ones.

And therein lies the challenge — and the danger:

Measurement and fixation on things that doesn’t lead to performance improvement can be worse than worthless. Not only do we avoid progress, we do so while wasting huge amount of time, energy and resources.

An expensive double whammy, so to speak.

Put the K back in the KPI

There’s the temptation to fixate on certain performance metrics for no other reason than they are easier to measure. But if the aim is really to move the needle on the progress dial, we have to get used to asking: amidst the sea of performance metrics for this goal/in this system, which ones are the absolutely crucial?

We must ask, against our natural inclination: if one of these many metrics will lead directly to improvement and success, which one would it be?

We must put the K back in the KPI, and focus on that.

In many endeavors, the KPIs might not be immediately apparent. We may have to dig to discover. But dig we must. We might need to do some research. But research we must. We may have to ask around alot from those ahead. But ask around we must.

Because for the improvement and progress we seek, there’s really no substitute to finding out the measures that matters (the KPIs) and restricting our limited focus to that.

The challenge of the age of data is not data availability or insufficient performance metrics, it is the ability to separate the few that really matters from the many that doesn’t.

With having so much to do amidst a limited cognitive scope, measuring — and focusing on — only what matters is our path to a maximized ROI.