Metrics, A Story

A metric goes to a bar. “What’ll you be having?” asks the bartender.

The Last Word.”

“Okay.” The bartender begins mixing the drink.

“Actually, I changed my mind,” said Metric. “Give me everything you’ve got. I’m cleaning you out.”

The bartender is aghast. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I AM the bar.”

Imagine we are pirates. You’ve got a sturdy pine leg and I’ve got a gleaming silver hook for a left hand. We’ve had our share of adventures. And now—after storms and scurvy and a particularly unpleasant trek through the sweltering, high jungles of St. Urgelf’s Swarmlands—oh happiness upon happinesses, we’ve found a Pirate’s Map!

But one look at this pirate map and the air around us deflates.

Something is not right.

There is no big black X, for one thing. No meandering dotted line through the oceans and giant squids and mountain and valleys.

There is only a scrawled note at the bottom right: at 12.535 degrees North and 77.352 degrees West, make an additional 7.54 km forward progress at 106 degrees.

We look at each other.

This is the start of a terrible pirate story.

“We’re going to go more than 10x the farthest distance we’ve ever gotten in space.”

We’re going to be able to sell three hundred million computers in a single year.

I’m going to run 100m in under 10 seconds.

Numbers are many things: precise, clear as a bullseye, easily understood. They’re straightforward to measure and track. They’re hard to twist and morph, say, if you were to pass an important figure across many hops in a game of real-life telephone.

Alas, the one thing numbers are not is inspiring.

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Why do we do the things we do? Why do we build what we build? Surely, there is some greater purpose. Surely, there is a higher calling, if not in any particular task or area of work, then in life as a whole. In our dreams do we sow kernels of tiny truths that we hope will one day blossom into reality.

Dreams are not numbers. Dream transcend metrics. Dream are stories that can be deeply felt and understood and shared.

“We will put a man on the moon.”

“A computer on every desk and in every home.”

“I told you all I was going to be No. 1, and I did just that.”

Every year around this time, there is this frenzy. Company X sees Y% year-over-year growth! Z units sold! $Q in profits! The news is big, because the quarterly earnings are a sign of the trajectory to come. Based on a snapshot of a moment in time, belief in a company dips, tumbles or soars, setting off waves of press and chatter.

Every day, I see teams gunning for a metric they’ve set. Dashboards display number of users or retention or revenue or clickthrough or likes or page views or more—just pick your target and shoot.

This isn’t wrong. To have accountability, you need to know how to measure progress.

But it starts getting wrong when you lose sight of the big picture.

Why do users or retention or revenue or clickthrough or likes or pages views matter? They’re not a goal in of themselves. What are you trying to do for the world? What is the value that a person will get by using your product or feature at the end of the day?

Call it a mission or a raison d’être or a value statement or whatever. It should be summable in a single sentence. There should be one not just for the entire company, but also for every team and every project within that company. When people hear this, they should feel inspired. Like it’s something they’d be excited to get and make happen every morning.

If your team, org, or company doesn’t have this, and instead has a bunch of metrics, it might be time to take a step back and think about how to better articulate the “why do we do what we do?” more clearly.

Then, you can start executing on the mission by breaking it down into its requisite milestones, each with its own set of metrics or measurements to help serve as guideposts for how well things are going.

Then, nobody will wonder why it matters if something goes from 3.5% to 5%. Or why we’re doing that test to get users to click that link 1.25 times more. Or why we should bother at all with a pirate story that doesn’t discuss where the end of this long, mosquito-ridden, thirst-inducing journey will lead.

Because the real story will be evident and exciting and serve as a true compass when all else but intuition fails you.

A metric goes to a bar. “What’ll you be having?” asks the bartender.

Before he can reply with “the sidecar,” you leap upon him, using him as a stepping stone towards the top shelf of the bar, where you grab a bottle of the rare vintage, kick off the cabinetry, grasp onto the ledge of the open window through the ceiling, and hoist yourself onto the roof where you hitch a ride for a rocket ship to the moon.

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