The Metrics Catch-22

The Metrics Catch-22

Joseph Heller’s dark satire Catch-22 proposes the term for problems that inherently prevent their own solutions. Creating good metrics can be seen as a Catch-22: Good metrics take time to create, but until you have good metrics there is no time to create them. How true is this and is there a way to break this cycle?


I had a client recently tell me about how much one part of the company needed better metrics, but that they would never be able to free up enough time to create them. This is a common conundrum with companies that understand the benefits of having the correct metrics, but have a hard time finding the resources to do them right.

The irony is that a lot of the time managers are currently spending is probably wasted... 

The irony is that a lot of the time managers are currently spending is probably wasted on things that they shouldn’t even be doing in the first place.

Some portion of their time is being devoted to things that are not important. This is not because these managers are incompetent – in fact, quite the contrary. In my experience, such managers keenly feel the burden of helping their workers keep working and they internalize that stress to their own detriment.

There are a million things going on at any one time crying out for a response. Perhaps a manager is reacting to a real problem at their level, but one that stems from their personnel not having the metrics themselves to prevent it. Perhaps they are reacting to a meaningful metric, but other metrics are more important and less visible. Or perhaps it is a metric that is not at all aligned with what the business needs, not because of maliciousness, but because the objectives of the company and how that manager affects them are not yet understood. The solution here lies in how the real world works: While there are a million things going on, only a few need to be reacted to by that manager at that time.

The second timewaster is when managers spend time doing someone else’s job. Management is an act of allocating responsibility to those who are in the best position to do something about it. This allocation happens through the translation of metrics from the supervisor to the supervisee. If that hasn’t happened, these devoted managers bear the responsibility for everything that goes on in their area. This leads to them running around with their hair on fire about things that make a lot more sense for someone closer to the process to be dealing with.

At times supervisors do someone else’s job because, in the absence of an integrated set of metrics, it might not be clear whose job it is to do, or that the resources needed are where they need to be. This leads to things getting missed, duplication of effort, and animosity. With this issue, the solution is to clearly understand what a manager affects and is responsible for and, just as importantly, what they don’t.

...distribute the task of metrics creation throughout the business to the people best suited to the task...

How do we break the cycle of metrics needing time needing metrics? We distribute the task of metrics creation throughout the business to the people best suited to the task – those who own the metrics themselves.

As I have written about in my new book Galileo’s Telescope and numerous blog postings, the first step is to create metrics of success for the organization. Once these are decided, each level of management has a relatively simple question to answer: “If my boss needs that, what do I do that supports it?” If every level of the organization does this, you end up with an integrated set of metrics that are all aligned with whatever the organizational success metrics were at the top.

Creating metrics should not be the role of one or even a group of individuals. It should be the role of everyone in the company to create, review, and update metrics for the area they manage or work within. This distributes the effort across the company to where it belongs – the individuals themselves. An individual might spend an hour or so and create the metrics that make sense for them to control and relate to their supervisor’s metrics, at least as a starting point. Over time, they gather data that will either verify the metrics they have selected or point to other metrics that would be more effective. Even starting with a few marginally effective metrics is better than nothing. And sometimes nothing is better than if everyone makes up metrics in isolation but without a linkage to each other or the business objectives.

Creating good metrics takes time but it is an investment that will pay you back many times over.

Creating good metrics takes time but it is an investment that will pay you back many times over.  Distributing the creation of these metrics out to each individual means the time investment is spread out across many people, lowering the impact and making it possible to get it done efficiently and in a reasonable amount of time.

Share your metric identification and implementation challenges with us. We look forward to helping facilitate your implementation and speeding up their use to drive results.