Monthly Archives: September 2012

Beyond Mere Measure

The game is always changing. The fundamental rule of the game is that playing the game changes the rules.

At some point, every business will reach a point where it realizes the way it’s playing the game isn’t leading to the results it desires. So the leadership in the business will do what any reasonable person would do, investigate why. The answers are never easy. Oh, there’s easy answers out there such as, “We need to hire better people.” or “We need to invest in better tools to do our jobs.” These answers are technically valid but inappropriate. They assume the problem with performance is around affordance and capacity instead of facing the five devils of organizational underperformance: Imitation, Inertia, Suboptimization, Change of Game, and Shift of Paradigm (Gharajedaghi, 2011). Frankly put, hiring better people and investing in better tools may end up empowering the business to do the wrong things righter. The business may have been designed in a way to manage and resolve problems that may no longer be relevant. In the words of Stafford Beer, “Acceptable ideas are competent no more, but competent ideas are not yet acceptable. This is the dilemma of our time.”

This, of course, is a central concern to IT. No work is done in the business that doesn’t rely upon IT in some way. So whether the business flippantly decides to invest in better tools (this is code for a new enterprise-wide IT project) or carefully investigates what has happened (hopefully using the Balanced Scorecard methodology), IT will have a role to play. Perhaps IT will play a leadership role in the conversation. One hopes it would, as either lack of leadership or incompetent leadership from IT dims any business’ prospects.

Let’s just assume that the business is following the Balanced Scorecard method. It defines its perspectives. It builds its strategy map. With these things built, the organization will need to construct its measures. The first rule of management is that one can’t manage what one can’t measure, so to manage change, it becomes necessary to build measures. The risk of implementing measures is that doing so introduces a meta-game, the measurement game. We’ve all seen this. We’ve seen the underperforming IT department point to three or four nine uptime as a measure of its success and the rest of the business shake their collective heads, wondering if IT will ever “get it”. This isn’t just something IT is guilty of. To prevent the “chasing measures” game from occurring, there must be a recognition of emergent properties that cannot be directly measured. Usually cooperation and coordination, commonly known as teamwork.

I remember watching a local Telco/ISP that I worked for put together a brilliant advertising campaign. This company was one that was perpetually always the bridesmaid and never the bride. It lagged behind its competitor and had a mediocre reputation in the community it served. The Marketing department found a weakness in its competitors product and exploited it mercilessly. Its marketing campaign was so successful that it met and exceeded every measure it had on the books by far. Unfortunately for the company, there wasn’t any coordination and those responsible for delivering service hadn’t built out any capacity and drowned under all the orders. At one point, it was taking this company six weeks to turn on internet service for new customers. That company’s reputation never recovered. There’s a new rumor of its buyout every month. I suppose it will only be a matter of time.

Well, at least the Marketing department can rest safe in the fact that it did its job well even if the company didn’t. This is the insidious side of what Jamshid Gharajedaghi refers to as Type I measures. These are your quantifiables: how much uptime, how much revenue, how little turnover. They don’t tell larger stories and they incentivize behaviors that may run counter to the business’ objectives. To pull from sports, is your star player incentivized for winning scoring titles or for winning championships? What is needed is a recognition that there is more to the story than Type I measures. These are your Type II properties, your emergent properties that come from interaction. Type II measures are your unquantifiable but still very real measures. In our individual lives, they’re happiness, success, love. These are all emergent properties that come from a relationship between one or more entities; sometimes other people, sometimes the environment. We can’t measure happiness or love but we know it when we see it. We know when we’re more or less happy than previously. In the organization, they’re things like coordination, teamwork, grit, success. They’re extremely important. Who knew? Dr. Deming once said, “The most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.”

In IT, what are our Type II measures? Being laterally positioned in the business, they’re probably the scariest measurements we could ask for. It’s safe to sit behind standard measures, but that’s why mediocrity is so prevalent, it doesn’t require courage. Pardon the sports metaphor but IT is the point guard of the business and so our measures are similar. Are we setting up the business for success? Are we leading and getting other departments in position to score? Are we coordinating seemingly disparate efforts that, despite organizational opacity, impact each other directly? These are our Type II measures. Just as the successful point guard isn’t just a masterful coordinator, they have leadership properties, so must IT lead. If someone’s head isn’t in the game, they’re there to help them snap out of it. If people are out of sync, they’re there to coordinate efforts. Sometimes they’re scoring and at others they are enabling others to score. They are truly laterally positioned. The same is true for an effective IT.

All work is enabled by IT. We must help the business recognize this fact. We must not halt at our measures, which are very important and must be included in every discussion, but recognize that they, like a compass, really point to our Type II properties. How successful is IT? Only as successful as the business it supports.