Let's Give Them Something To Talk About
by Peter Block
Sorry We're Closed: Diary of A Shutdown
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:
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.