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We can measure anything. Vital things, rubbish things, relevant, secondary, soft, hard, anything. We have been told by the Wise Men of Management (they are mainly men) that ‘what can’t be measured can’t be managed’. Which is is why I can’t manage love, art, wonder and a few other minor things in life. Thanks God for that.

The main bias in this territory is the tendency to measure what is in front of us, available (there is a term for that, availability bias) whether is relevant or not. Worse if ‘there is a tool for it’. It’s tempting, convenient and hard to avoid. Most metrics are there so you can outsource your reflection, thinking, and sensing.

My default position has always been: tell me what we want to see, not what we want to measure. The wrong start of the conversation is ‘what to measure’. The right one is what, in the desire world, we want to see, hear, etc. Then  you create a metrics for it. It’s unlikely to be one off the shelf for you.

Surveys (employee engagement, satisfaction, climate etc.) have created a sub-industry for years. It’s hard to argue with the idea that asking a massive workforce is bad, particularly when it only takes… a survey. But the dissatisfaction with surveys has grown in recent years. There is a tiring element in the ritual. Response rates are usually not great. Once a year (or even more frequently) the work force is given a thermometer, and many would not care less to use it.

I have been very critical of employee surveys (harsh at times) perhaps because I have seen more problems created than the ones they have tried so solve. My experience is therefore equally biased.

What I am completely convinced is that surveys, at best, tell you the ‘what’, but they are not nearly as good as telling you the ‘why’. One can of course construct a ‘why narrative’ by putting together lots of ‘what’ and creating a logic: ‘well-being is down, because people are overstretched, and they don’t trust their managers’. The because and the and are artificially constructed  in order to make sense  and create a story, but it is not terribly serious.

Another significant trap is to try to ‘manage culture’ in terms of the ups and down of the scores of an employee survey. You end up managing numbers and not the culture. You would not manage a company in terms of ‘increasing x points in earnings per share, EPS’ as strategy. And if you do, you are a disgrace, excuse my language. Leaders who only play with numbers should graduate in Las Vegas Casino School.

Numbers are a proxy for the reality. They only make sense of you can grab that reality well beyond what the numbers indicate. This is why leaders need to spend time understanding the why that surveys are not that good at showing.  Surveys sometimes act as an alibi for not having conversations, for avoiding the perhaps conflictive or uncomfortable human dialogue.

Surveys  are also very powerful at hijacking air time. The result of this is that you talk about it for weeks. If the results are ‘not good’, giving extraordinary and frequent time to ‘not good’ has a strong chance of creating  ‘more not good’. It sounds counterintuitive, but not for those of us with cognitive framing and behavioural sciences glasses. But it is hard to accept that ‘fixing negatives’ may require in fact giving less time at ‘fixing negatives’ and more time at bringing people to a positive land.  They are not the same. They are not a mirror.

The modern organization is in massive need of listening and interpreting. Leaders need more socio-anthropological skills and less pie chart reading skills.  Those who can manage to bridge the world of ‘data points’  (and pies, and bars…) and the world of ‘soft data’ will be in a good place. When the pie chart stops talking, the humans need to stop looking at ‘it’ on screen and start looking at each other.

Don’t let the why be hijacked by the what. Don’t let the conversation be hijacked by the survey.

By the way, these principles apply to public services, from education to health care, just as well.

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