Toilet Paper And The Watermelon Metric

Early in my career I learned a task was like going to the toilet: Not finished until the paperwork was done.

As a manager at Microsoft, the company became the most metricised organisation I'd ever worked for. In 2007 with a staff of 20 consultants I had to report on 35 KPI's each.

Of course this isn't unique to MS, but a common malady affecting enterprises. Especially those with matrix management. And this drives a certain behaviour…

Reporting Focus

Reporting focus is insidious, a termite that eats a company from within. It drives the Watermelon Metric. Green on the outside, masking red behaviours.

This is because the focus is the report rather than the work. Added to which is a proportional relationship between effort and inaccuracy. I suspect there is also a correlation between incentive and inaccuracy. This is what causes sales people to 'sandbag,' consultants to fudge timesheets, executives to misreport expenses.

Consider the Annual Performance Review. Good managers know and recognise performance in their teams regularly. For them the process is a waste of time at best, and a constrained burden at worst. Bad managers don't measure or recognise, but for them the process hides their poor management. Either way you can have a green dashboard with completed reviews, but a disengaged and unproductive staff.

Manager Symbiosis

Another issue is that whilst the report usually costs the employee effort, it rarely benefits them. Occasionally reports are used as a carrot and stick, but mostly they benefit managers and executives.

And metricisation is symbiotic with management layers. Managers need metrics to justify their position, and more measurements requires more managers. As Peter Drucker accurately said: “What gets measured gets managed.”

The problem is that manual reports mean you're measuring the reporting process. You create a system that savvy employees and managers game, whether maliciously or to avoid burnout.

What metrics do you have to report on that take you away work?

Which ones obscure what's actually happening in the organisation?


Automate Your Life

One of the best work and life hacks is to automate the repetitive. This concept is so powerful that Tim Ferriss has made a career out of it. His book The Four Hour Work Week (brilliant by the way) is a treatise on identifying the things that steal time, and then using outsourcing or automation to accelerate the task and get your time back to do the things that provide fulfillment, and where you add value.

Yet people don't. Probably for a couple of reasons:

  • The concept is so simple we take it for granted.
  • The inertia to learn a tool, setup an automated process, or educate an outsourcer outweighs the effort of a single instance. E.g. the 4 hours to set-up a mail merge for sending newsletters outweighs the 1 hour it would take to just send them manually. Despite for the next infinite number of newsletters your time to execute is now just 30 seconds.
  • The perceived cost is too high for current cashflow. E.g. A Virtual Assistant might cost me $200 per month, which I don't have at the moment because of late fees on a corporate card, because I never get my expenses done on time.
  • Ignorance of rapidly changing technology means we simply don't consider how we can automate something.

Which one of those holds you back?

So Automate Already

Right now take 2 minutes (no longer, the trick is not to over think this) and write down 9, yes 9, things in your life that you could automate. Jot them on a blank canvas (paper, mindmapping tool, Scapple, Paper by 53 on the iPad/iPhone, or whatever tool you like.)

Then take another 2 minutes, preferably with a friend, and write down just one way you could expand each of the 9.

Connect ideas that have similarities if you like.

Prioritise them.

Then automate your life.

Here's one I prepared…

PS If you do anything in technology, you should be automating. Your presentations, emails, spreadsheets, documents, publishing schedules, calendar, server builds, test schedules, meeting agenda. Every task where you do the identical thing more than once, can, and should, be automated.


Are you Automating, or Empowering

Project 2012: Day 244

I had a discussion with a friend at church last Saturday. We’re considering replacing a 15+ year old analogue sound desk with a newer digital desk.

We agreed not to progress the discussion.

All a digital desk would do, at this stage, is automate part of the sound engineering process. Rather than empowering the creativity of the worship team.

And don’t get me wrong, as a technologist, guitarist, drummer, and sound engineer, I personally would love a digital desk.

But first we need to understand the long term strategy, then the worship strategy, then our goals. Then we should decide the technology to enable those goals.

Easy Trap

Judging from the RFP’s I read weekly at work, this “automation” trap is an easy one for us to fall into. But a dangerous one.

Yes, technology allows us to automate business processes. But the automation isn’t the end goal. Rather it’s the empowerment of the business. Actually that statement is erroneous too. It’s the empowerment of the people in the business. Your colleagues, friends, peers, team. You.

Wrong Metrics

Have you heard of a “pineapple metric?” This is where a goal is reported as green, but is actually orange on the inside. In other words you’re measuring the wrong thing. Either it’s something you can count (easily) rather than something you should count; or it’s something that is easy to report on, that doesn’t reflect an actual result.

I’ll give you an easy example here…

…Your annual review conversation. How many of those are “ticked” in the system, so the metric for HR comes up green – all performance conversations are complete – yet staff feel unempowered, and disengaged.

This is what happens when you focus technology on automation, rather than empowerment.

Be the Change

Do you have systems that automate processes, whilst disempowering staff? They could be expenses, travel systems, CRM, time-sheeting, Point of Sale…

…any IT mediated system.

You have the unique position in your organisation to force a change. To tweak the system, or the reporting from the system from one of automation, to one that empowers people.

You have the authority to free staff up to be their creative, collaborative, productive geniuses that you hired them for. To give them systems they want to use.

…and you have the position to automate more.

The choice is yours.