ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

March 1999

Facing The Music In The Global Marketplace

Military Intelligence - Not An Oxymoron

Starting A Revolution Where Everyone Wins

The New Leadership Class

Let's Give Them Something To Talk About

by Peter Block
Sorry We're Closed: Diary of A Shutdown

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Sites Unseen

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Book Review

Views For A Change

Myron Kellner-Rogers answers:
I must admit that I’m a contrary choice for answering what is on the surface a clearly technical question. In my practice, measurement takes on new meaning. My work with clients often challenges the use of off-the-shelf metrics and the adoption of best practices without the unique context of the environment they were developed in. Too often, we act as though we believe that the practice or metric creates the result we are searching for. Yet, the metric is simply the visible artifact of a context of relationships that create shared meaning and focus, and therefore results. To abstract metrics from their context and the act of their creation disempowers people, and grants undue hegemony to numbers.

Clearly measurement is necessary. But what are the problems you are dealing with for which you assume measures are the solution? We want high-quality performance. We want commitment, focus, teamwork, learning and change. We want people to pay attention to performance. But do metrics elicit these performance qualities?

I believe that the behaviors we seek are never produced by measurement. They are capacities that arise as people feel connected to their work and each other. The behaviors appear as colleagues develop a shared sense about what really matters here. As they feel more connected to one another and the community of their organization, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, and share their learnings.

But most managers seem to choose specific metrics as the route to these capacities. They agonize to find the right reward and tie it to the right measure. We consistently deny the truth of our experience - any measure or reward is inherently unsustainable. They may work in the very short term, but the longer we try to garner the behaviors we seek through metrics and rewards, the more damage we do to the quality of our relationships, manipulating each other and trivializing the meaning of our work.

But measurement in critical. It provides something essential for sustainable, resilient living systems: feedback. Life thrives on feedback and dies without it. If we don’t know how our actions impact others, how the environment is changing, we can’t grow and adapt. It is not the measure we are after, but feedback, which implies a relationship. Feedback is about our conversation with each other and our environment, constantly changing our view of ourselves and the meaning of our actions. Or, as Parker Palmer says in The Courage to Teach, “We need to be engaged in a passionate and disciplined process of inquiry and dialogue...the dynamic conversation of a community that keeps testing old conclusions and coming into new ones.”

If we shift our pursuit from finding the right metric to creating the capacity for accessing feedback, it is important to understand how feedback differs from measurement in any living system:
- Feedback is self-generated. An individual or a system notices whatever they determine is important for them. We may assign a specific measure, but people will always interpret it based on who they are and their interpretation of what is critical. Metrics, by contrast, are usually imposed.
- Feedback depends on context. The information that is critical is being generated right now. If we cannot adjust to the present circumstances, or stay rooted in past assumption, we will fail. Metrics come in “one size fits all.”
- Feedback changes. What an individual or system chooses to notice will change depending on the past, present, and the future. Looking for information only within rigid boundaries leads to blindness. Metrics seek information only from fixed categories.
- Feedback is life-sustaining. It provides essential information about how to maintain one’s existence, when to adapt and change.
- Feedback supports movement toward fitness. Through the constant exchange of information, the individual and the environment co-evolve toward sustainability. In our use of metrics, we have forced the system to adapt to the measure.
- Feedback is contrary and revolutionary. This last point is critical, and challenges our notions about the “right measures.” Our common measurement discipline leads us to constantly strive to meet the measure to confirm it. In the process we deny disconfirming information-feedback it is the disturbance that perturbs the systems into new expressions of itself, more congruent with the environment.

Understanding this distinction between feedback and measurement leads us to a different discipline. We need to ask, what is the source of the problem for which feedback might be the answer. In your question, I hear a desire to connect engineer professionals up with the consequences of their work. In a sense of connection to the whole community the real issue? Will specific metrics create that connection? Or is there a different work to do?

I’d suggest working on undoing the boundaries between the engineers and the system they serve and are a part of. In any project, begin to connect people across boundaries in a conversation that creates a shared context. The engineers, like many people in our organizations, can’t see themselves in the work of the whole, and the meaning and effects of their work may not be seen. As the connecting, contextual conversations evolve, help people inquire together about how to see the impact of their work. They’ll create measures that are more relevant and meaningful than anything you could assign them. Through this practice, measurement will no longer be the master, but will become a helpful servant, a servant to the capacity we can create when we struggle together in common work that we love.

Myron wishes to thank his partner, Margaret Wheatley, for the passionate and disciplined dialogue and work from which this column emerged.

John Runyan Responds

March '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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