Are you measuring or are you moving?

Effective executives balance time spent moving vs. time spent measuring.

The case

One fine day at a backyard barbecue, a utility executive says to a cloud software executive, “I have found that a dashboard for my business helps me understand it.” The software executive says “great, what’s happening today?” The utility executive, a little exasperated, says “well, the dashboard is only updated monthly.” “So, when do you look at the dashboard?” says the software guy. “Usually in our monthly staff meeting on the 15th of the month. Our finance group prepares the dashboards, and they take about 10 days to complete.” says the utility guy. Software guy lets out a deep breath and says “Monthly? I can lose my entire company in a month.  We look at our stats at 5 PM every day, just to know whether there’s a customer issue that we need to tackle.  It takes 5 mins and we jump on any issues.” The utility guy says, “yeah, well, our customers can’t leave.” Software guy goes to get another drink from the cooler.

The question

Which one are you? Are you the utility executive, insulated from customer turmoil by a deep regulatory moat? Perhaps you are the cloud software exec, where daily action must be taken to ensure customer satisfaction. You’re probably somewhere in between. There are few businesses that move at a daily pace like the software business described above, but there are a LOT of businesses that spend a LOT of time compiling measurements of where they were last month when in reality those measurements are already meaningless. That’s right . . . it’s history.  In most businesses, dashboards are great for identifying issues and issuing some attaboys, but they are almost always out of date. Yes, yes, there are still industries that move at the speed of paper, but they are rare.  Your business likely moves faster than your account function, so you probably ought to ensure you match your “measuring” activities with the pace of your business.  Doing so allows your pace of operations to match the pace of change. Famous 20th-century physicist Werner Heisenberg–not the Heisenberg of Breaking Bad fame . . . the real one–famously established the eponymous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  The principle essentially says that there are real limits to what you can “know” at any moment about, in Heisenberg’s case, quantum systems.  One of Dr. Heisenberg’s principle’s essential assertions is that it’s impossible to know both the position and momentum of a particle precisely at the same time.  To know where a particle is precisely, you likely have to give up some certainty about where the particle is goingConversely, the more precisely you know where the particle is going, the less precisely you will know where it is. And, while it’s clearly malpractice to apply quantum mechanics to the conference room, allow me to do so:  The more time you spend trying to understand where your business is the less certainty you are likely to have about where it is going.

In short, you can measure, or you can move . . . so your balance of those two things needs to be matched to the pace of your business. 

It’s a rare business or organization that can do both measurement and movement at the same time, effectively.  You’ve probably felt this tension every time you’ve asked your salesforce to fill out surveys or to complete a CRM template. Your salesforce (if it’s worth its salt) likely told you the cost in terms of customer interaction, closed sales, or other value-added work.  You were pushing to measure, and the salesforce was pushing to move.  Such is one of the chief (good) arguments for sales support resources (measurement) to aid your salesforce (movement).

The opposite case can come into play as well. You’ve possibly felt this tension if you’ve ever asked your Program Management Organization (PMO) what results it has delivered.  The answer, if it’s typical, will look a lot like a count of meetings, dashboards, templates, and reviews. It’s less likely that you get a summary of business results.  The mission of a PMO in the typical sense is measurement.  Moving the business is somebody else’s role. Now, PMO dynamics aside–the art of the action-oriented PMO are for another post–you can see that there are tradeoffs to measuring and moving.

So what?

The takeaway here is threefold: First, just like Heisenberg, you have to know that measuring and moving tend to vary inversely–prepping for weeks for a board meeting (yep, I’ve seen it) fundamentally takes away from running the business.  Second, you have to know when you are measuring and when you are moving; and you have to know what elements of your business should be geared for movement (like sales) or measurement (like finance or the PMO above). And, third, you need to know the pace of your business and how much “measurement time” is okay given customer and regulatory dynamics. Our utility and software executives illustrate that at the start of this post. If you can combine knowledge of these dynamics and alignment of business pace with how you tradeoff measuring and moving, you’ll be well ahead of the game. Now, what do you think?     

Stay a little bit childish

Albert Einstein once said that the reason he was so good at thinking about time and space was that he was delayed in his childhood development to the degree that he forgot to forget about such wondrous things as an adult. The direct quote is this: “I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was regarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.” So, what’s the implication of this reflection from one of the greatest minds of all time for us management scientists? I think it’s this: Protect time to “wonder.” There’s no doubt that in today’s environment you are being tackled by the urgent. That customer or vendor issue is way, way more urgent than the chance to stop and think about structural changes in your market. But is it more important? I’m not sure. You need to save some time to express awe and wonder at your industry. You need to be able to explain how it works. You must be able to understand your own position within it. Because if you don’t have these insights, solving that next customer issue might just be a fool’s errand. Think about it. Do you protect enough time to express Einstein’s childish wonder at your business? What do you think?