Metrics? Anything Can Be Measured
“In many spheres of human endeavor, from science to business to education to economic policy, good decisions depend on good measurement.”
— Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve
Is it possible for anything to be measured? I am not talking about what we already measure, what I call hard facts, such as revenue or leads generated during a given period. I am talking about the intangible things, like culture improvement and creating awareness.
I am of the belief that anything can be measured. After all, what is a metric? Originating from the Greek word metron, meaning measure, it is a mental model on how to evaluate something.
A fantastic example of the ingenuity that can come when a unit of measurement is lacking is best described in the (almost) funny story of how three scientists established a way to measure temperature, each one imagining it differently.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit of Poland invented the alcohol thermometer and the mercury thermometer in 1709 and 1714 respectively. He proposed a scale that had its zero point as the temperature of ice melting in a solution of common table salt, as this was the lowest temperature he could conveniently attain in his lab (a routine 18th century way of getting a low temperature). For a reproducible high point on the scale he chose the temperature of blood in a healthy person (fun fact: in this case the healthy person was his wife), which he measured in the armpit and fixed it at 100 degrees. He then divided the scale into single degrees between 0 and 100. It is said that Fahrenheit believed a person would freeze to death at 0°F and succumb to heatstroke at 100°F.
On this scale, the freezing point of pure water happens to occur at 32°F and would boil at 212°F. However, he never used water in his experiments. After his death, the scale was recalibrated, marking 32°F and 212°F as the exact melting and boiling points of plain water, minus salt. It also makes the normal body temperature 98.6°F, which has become the standard.
Meanwhile in Sweden, Anders Celsius was performing diligent experiments to develop his own scale. In his paper, “Observations of two persistent degrees on a thermometer”, he documented experiments to determine that water’s freezing point is independent of latitude or atmospheric pressure. However, his findings concluded that latitude and atmospheric pressure do affect the boiling point of water. So, he decided that the point when pure water at sea level starts boiling would be zero and when water freezes would be one hundred. Clearly, this is inverted from what we know to be the Celsius scale today. It is suspected that this happened because in Celsius’s country of Sweden temperatures often exceeded freezing but never went past boiling. The inverted scale may have helped scientists to avoid negative numbers, since negative signs can be easily overlooked on paper, leading to errors. No one truly knows for sure. Unfortunately, Celsius would not live to see his scale develop into the standard it has become. His death in 1744 would prompt a move to invert the scale and by 1747 the scale was officially changed.
Fast forward 100 years to Lord Kelvin, formally known as William Thomson, who publishes a paper titled, “On an Absolute Thermometric Scale”. In this article he discusses the need for a scale whereby “infinite cold” (absolute zero) was the scale’s null point and which used the Celsius scale for its unit increments.
The idea for the Kelvin scale was sparked by a discovery in the 1800s of a relationship between the volume and the temperature of a gas. Scientists theorized that the volume of a gas should become zero at a temperature of minus 273.15°C. Kelvin used this as a basis for an absolute temperature scale. He defined “absolute” as the temperature at which molecules would stop moving or “infinite cold”. From absolute zero, he used the same units as Celsius to determine the increments.
Nota Bene: Absolute zero cannot technically be achieved. Scientists have been able to lower the temperature of matter to just a fraction of a Kelvin above absolute zero through techniques such as slowing down particles using lasers, but have never been able to reach an exact “absolute zero”.
The takeaway from this story is that, where they had been no metric, they invented one. When they had achieved this but it was not exactly what was needed, they tweaked it to suit their purpose. In the end, a scale is not real, it is merely a mental model produced by our imagination.
The true value of a metric is that by knowing where you are on a scale, you can anticipate an outcome. For example, if you read 100°F (39°C) on a thermometer, you can imagine yourself on a beach in summer clothing. If you were to read -4°F (-20°C) on a thermometer you would layer your clothing before leaving the house.
If I have still not convinced you that anything can be measured, read Douglas Hubbard’s book How to Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business. It is well worth the read.
Definitions of popular metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can be found in many public and private resources. KPI Library is a crowd-sourced repository of Key Performance Indicator definitions. Since 2007 members have suggested over 6500 KPI templates and examples, and have participated in benchmark surveys to create the world’s largest library of KPI information.
Another useful resource would be SmartKPIs developed by The KPI Institute. Their database consists of more than 21,000 KPIs, the result of intense, ongoing research conducted by their team.
As CEO at one of the companies I worked with, we were attempting to measure the progress in licensing technology. There was no available measure for this, so we came up with what we called a Progress Index, where we could measure progress on a scale from 0% to 100%. Below is the example of the metric we invented:
If you cannot find a suitable KPI from the above mentioned sources, you can most certainly design one of your own.
Eric Kish as an author, speaker and practicing CEO. He is the author of 5 to 50 to 500: How to build and run scalable organizations and Everyday Turnaround: The art and science of daily business transformation