How am I doing?

I'm a firm believer that most people, most of the time, want to make a good job. Even on a bad day I have a hard time imagining anyone waking up and saying “today, I’ll do my best to suck”, arguably even that would qualify as wanting to do a good job albeit not perhaps in a constructive manner.

What then might impede us in our endeavour? Many times we quite simply don’t know how we’re doing. We might not know if we’re doing the thing right. Quite likely it’s not even at all certain that it’s the right thing.

The predictable result is anxiety or frustration. Sometimes we wake up to the reality that even though we deeply believed the right thing was getting done, in the right way. The result wasn't what was desired.

To mitigate these problems and to establish a sense of meaning we often end up seeking the answer to some variant of “how am I doing?”. For most things there’s not a clear indicator so we try to figure it out using heuristics and proxy variables. Closer inspection can often reveal that the question we answer is so far disconnected from the real thing as to be almost useless.

Most measurement is inadequate for its stated purpose. 
Which might just mean that the stated purpose really isn't the real purpose but some more politically palatable half-truth.

I guess an example could be useful.

I give presentations at a few conferences each year, my motivation for doing so is to give back to the community that has been a large part of shaping me into whom I am. That has inspired me to try new things and find better ways of doing. One interesting thing of being part of that particular travelling circus and something both organizers and attendees seems to fret quite a bit about is how to handle “feedback”.

Nominally this feedback system is put into place so that those in attendance can rate the performances and help the speakers improve. Since everyone is in a hurry the “feedback” needs to be quick and easy. Quite commonly the ends up being some variant of “when you leave, please vote with a green, yellow, or red card”. Some pleas for adding some sort of comment to said card usually goes with the instructions.

It all looks very sensible. Speaker talks, listeners vote, speaker gets tally of cards. Improvement happens!


From my experience that’s a nice theory but anyone that actually ponders the situation for a few minutes would realize this for the most part isn't what’s going on. Sure speakers do get different ratings. But whom does that benefit?

Let’s all be hones, the “feedback” collected by conference organizers is very ineffective at improving the speaker. It’s actually mostly useless. The only thing those votes represent is “will they invite me back”. The only thing the speaker can really learn is that some people enjoyed, or not, the time you spent talking to them.

Why they did that? What they took away?Was it due to the content being funny? or informative? Did you convey the idea you wanted?

These are all questions that 57 Greens, 4 Yellows and 1 Red doesn't answer. 
But in general that’s a score that will let you do it all over again. Perhaps that suffice.

Personally I've found that the real feedback, the true learning, and insights about what really happened. What was heard. Comes from those that ask questions, come up to chat afterwards, find you in the hallway or in other ways interact.

That’s where you realize that what you thought you said and what people heard was two very different things. (Good thing you said it well enough to come back next year and straighten it all out..).

So that’s how I measure my conference talks, not by the feedback cards, because those aren't for me. But by the conversations and interactions that follow.

This might seem a very special situation. We wouldn't use utilize systems as silly as this for day to day interactions… would we?

Except, we do.

Praise is no different than those green cards. “Great job!” 
What was great about it? What in particular did you like? How did it help you? Without specifics the recipient is simply left hoping that the thing they think was great about what they just did, was the thing you saw and praised.

Most of the time. That’s not really true. Praise is not feedback. Praise doesn't really help us understand how we’re doing. Praise only serves to communicate acceptance, a positive judgement.

That might be encouraging, but it’s a measure of acceptance, not of doing well. Unless the purpose of course is being liked. Then praise might be a good indicator of progress.

Given the scarcity of real feedback we often opt instead for attempts to measure. We institute metrics. We set quotas. Not seldom do we attach incentives to these targets or goals. We start believing that purpose and meaning is moving the needle.

There’s two ways to employ metrics, to know how we’re doing, for self-assessment, for understanding. Or for evaluation. In general measurement for understanding are transient, situational and light weight. They have a clear purpose and focus, and that focus is ever shifting as we learn.

Metrics to control are often static, long lived and collected by others than those bound by them.

Lacking purpose and a clear means to understand how we’re doing, we often start focusing on the metrics instead. This transform a vague goal into a concrete and sharply defined one of lesser value and most often without anything but artificial meaning.

I encourage you to look around you, at all the mechanisms that are there to somehow shape your behaviour, to put focus on progress. And ask: what is this trying to tell whom? Look at the metrics you collect, or those that are taken on your work and ask: what decisions does this inform?

And most important of all, look at the things you’re doing, and spend time to figure out how you know how you’re doing. Because a sense of progress and doing well will carry you far. It’s what fuels the striving towards purpose, what guides and feeds intrinsic motivation.

If we don’t know how we’re doing. We end up not doing.

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