CTO Compass

Keep Score and Watch Your Performance Soar

CTO Compass series

We've all heard the phrase, "You can't manage what you don't measure." When tracking goals and performance, a feeling of certainty comes from having some cold, hard data and a clear target to aim at.

The simple fact of measuring something increases performance. For example, since getting an Apple Watch and having the ability to track my steps, I’ve increased my daily walking distance significantly.

When it comes to metrics, there are two primary types, leading and lagging indicators. Typically, when we’re taught to create goals, it’s a lag measure we’re setting; an ideal weight, a target revenue and so on. While lag measures have their place, as W. Edwards Deming said, “relying solely on them is like driving a car by constantly checking the rearview mirror.”

To truly shape our future successes, we must shift our focus towards lead measures—factors within our control that exert influence over the eventual lag measures.

What makes an excellent leading measure?

Good leading measures are habits or process-oriented activities that lead us toward the high-level goal, such as hitting at least 5,650 steps each day (lead indicator) for better health (by walking 1000 miles in 2023) (lag indicator).

In sales, it could be as simple as making a certain number of sales calls each week.

In software development, there are various metrics we might use, like the time it takes to develop and review pull requests, how many items are in process, test coverage percentage, or the percentage of issues resolved.

Keeping Score

Relying solely on leading measures can lead us astray, though. Consider the example of test coverage. It’s not about achieving 100% coverage but improving the lagging indicators, such as reducing defects and enabling confident and speedy deployments.

Once you’ve identified the metrics that matter, create a scorecard. It should include both leading and lagging measures. This tool becomes our daily guide, steering actions and decisions. It doesn’t need to be fancy. A shared spreadsheet is perfect. List your metrics down the side, along with a target you’re aiming for, and put the weeks across the top.

Review the numbers weekly as a team. If they don’t meet your targets, ask why. Dig deeper to find the root causes and then act. Holding a retrospective is an excellent way to uncover insights and improve.

Dynamic tension

While the saying I mentioned at the start holds, not everything that can be measured should be. It’s critical not to fall into the trap of relying solely on the numbers. They can mislead and be manipulated. Setting targets and striving for improvement is essential, but keep in mind the human aspect. Use your common sense and judgment. Avoid overemphasising metrics for reward or punishment. You may achieve the desired numbers, but the behaviour and outcomes you get may not be what you intended.

It’s a whole topic in itself, but I like to find two numbers in tension with each other to keep us honest and trending in the right overall direction.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

Productivity and results can skyrocket when metrics are used purposefully and with intention. So, if you feel so inspired during your thinking time this week, consider these questions:

  • Have you identified the key metrics which drive your business?
  • Are any of your metrics leading you astray?
  • What can you do to improve them?

CTO Compass series