- Key performance metrics are not in sync with the changing work-from-home world we live in today.
- Analytic performance metrics do not capture a complete snapshot or measure soft skills.
- It is better to inject creativity and innovation at every level to see meaningful performance measurements.
I remember years ago, when Peter Drucker popularized key performance metrics, or KPIs, they were all the rage. There was so much excitement around a method to assess employee performance. Finally—we can capture everything we want in numbers. It is the great panacea in the sky! The measuring method to end all other measuring methods!
Yet, as always, the fanfare was misguided.1 The main problem with KPIs is that they are outdated. They are outdated because they focus on things like daily targets, criticize underperformers, assign arbitrary metrics goals, and they are not in sync with the changing work-from-home world we are living in today. Any company or career that is measured only in KPIs is not likely to succeed in the long term. Analytic performance metrics such as KPIs simply do not capture a complete snapshot of the full performance spectrum or measure soft skills. Like many so-called performance metrics, they measure bureaucracy, not necessarily productivity.
No method of measuring performance is complete without using creativity.
The main problem is that most measurement techniques—no matter what the fashion of the moment is—focus solely on the analytics. The numbers. And, more often than not, the numbers can lie. Measurement techniques often focus on what can be measured. It’s easy. It’s a “best practice.”
But this ignores a whole other side of the human condition that highlights innovation and creativity as performance. What we cannot measure are often the most essential metrics of performance—far more valuable to a business or a career.
Do we measure the love of our spouse or pet and reflect that in a number? Does the quantity of tail wags from my dog equal the usefulness of my pet? Of course not. Do we measure bonds we have with our family and keep track of every meal we were served as children to quantify love received? I hope not! There are other factors, not quantifiable, that we use to reflect on our love for family or pets and so many other things in life. And it turns out that this is useful in business, too.
We need a new way to measure performance—one that encompasses the entirety of the human condition, not just the analytical but the creative, too. There are a few things we can do using creativity and innovation to help give us a far more complete snapshot of balanced performance.
1. Boots on the Ground
There is no substitute for an in-person, on-the-ground presence.2 It may sound old school or even trite to suggest there are meaningful interactions that can be done in person that no technology can accomplish—especially in a world filled with AI, that, much like KPIs in the past, promises to be the end-all be-all of tools.
So, what can we do while we are on the ground? Talk to people, customers, co-workers, and others on the front lines. See for your own eyes what is going on. Meet in person. Ask questions that require nuance not afforded by text. Take time to really be there and be present. The latest research shows being present in person is a gateway to creativity.3
When we step away from the spreadsheet, we see a view otherwise obscured by our monitors. When we get on the ground, in person and not distracted, we are presented with a valuable view that cannot be seen any other way. For instance, if the sales are low in a particular region, you may see a dip in a spreadsheet. But once you get on the ground, you may find that the dip is due to a lack of customers understanding your offering, the way it is packaged, or the marketing materials.
2. Soft Skills, Empathy, and You
There is nothing “soft” about soft skills. Exploring what they mean and how they work is one of the most essential things4 you can do for your career or business.
So-called soft skills—empathy, courage, psychological safety, humor, and more—are often far more important and have a greater impact on performance than the metrics on a spreadsheet.
Take empathy. It's a practice that I see far too few leaders employ—it’s simply not talked about often enough in the context of business or a career. A loss of empathy can result in detachment from the desired outcome. When we stop caring, we tend to go through the motions clinically—without taking the time to stop and think, explore, and innovate. Without empathy, we see the world as a series of tasks. Studies have shown that empathy declines during medical training5 with a consequence of missed diagnoses. In business, it can lead to the loss of an opportunity or goal or the ability to hire out a department. Empathy is one of the most important leadership qualities that we can bring to our roles—yet we don’t implement it enough.
All of this is hard work. It’s easier to pick a KPI, stay analytical, and be done with it rather than do the hard work to explore how empathetic the company culture is or how many soft skills are being implemented on a day-to-day basis with customers. But that, perhaps, is what makes empathy at the workplace so important. We need to develop ways to think more creatively about what we are measuring in the first place and add new and different tools to try and capture a holistic picture.
3. Got It? Now Do the Opposite
I remember a keynote I delivered to a financial services association in February 2020. A young professional in the audience listened thoughtfully and was the first to spring up and ask a question. I can’t remember the question verbatim, but it was something along the lines of how things have been stable in his industry for a while, and his expectations were that the stability would remain. I told him that the only stability in his industry—or any industry for that matter—is change. The COVID-19 pandemic hit not more than two months later.
Did I predict that? No. But the sentiment remains true, and the old adage still holds water: The only constant is change. Most businesses I have worked with, no matter the industry, have a series of best practices and norms. These have usually been established over several years and are a source of false comfort. False predictability6 is a sort of thinking that, well, this is how we do things—this is how we have done things before, and this is how we will continue to do things. What worked yesterday will work tomorrow.
The problem with this approach is that any established practice, in and of itself, is ripe for change. As soon as something is established, it is outdated. And when something is outdated, you’re already on the road to irrelevance. So, what can we do?
Try to do the opposite of what the established metric norm is. It might not always work, but flipping the coin on its head and looking at the other side from time to time may yield new and innovative creative ideas.
For instance, if it’s the industry norm for you to do a quarterly business review with vendors to establish performance metrics, consider canceling the program and replacing it with something that accomplishes similar goals in creative ways. Perhaps it’s a one-on-one happy hour meeting instead of a large, stuffy, and formal business review. Perhaps it’s simple emails sent from time to time with progress—freeing everyone up from having the meeting in the first place and saving time. You may just unleash a new and different way of doing things that is more efficient, is better for the client, or improves morale. It’s not about change for change’s sake; it’s about improving and building on the established norms to make them fit better for you and your particular business.
A one-size-fits-all performance metric will always lean on the analytics. It is far better to inject creativity and innovation at every level of your business or career to see real and meaningful measurements of performance. Whether it’s getting on the ground and seeing exactly what is going on, rewarding and implementing the practice of soft skills, or even trying the opposite of established best practices, these techniques will always yield a more complete performance picture. The above three tools can create significant rewards in uncovering what is truly valuable for your business, making performance measurements far more worthwhile as they drive true value to the things that matter most.
1. Amankwah-Amoah, J, Adomako, S. (2018). Big data analytics and business failures in data-rich environments: An organizing framework. Computers in Industry Science Direct, Pg. 204–212.
2. Hall, J., Pennington, N., Merolla, A. (2022). Which mediated social interactions satisfy the need to belong? Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 28, Issue 1, January 2023.
3. Henriksen, Danah, Richardson, Carmen, Shack, Kyle. (2020). Mindfulness and Creativity: Implications for thinking and learning. Think Skills Creat.
4. Dean, S., East, J. (2019). Soft Skills Needed for the 21st-Century Workforce. International Journal of Applied Management and Technology 2019, Volume 18, Issue 1, Pages 17–32 DOI:10.5590/IJAMT.2019.18.1.02
5. Riess, Helen. (2017). The Science of Empathy. J Patient Exp. 2017 Jun; 4(2): 74–77.
6. Gijsbers, V. (2023). The Paradox of Predictability. Erkenn Journal 88, 579–596