Measure for measure (with apologies to the Bard)

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The Beatles song ‘A day in the life’ told us about the ‘Four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire…and though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all; now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall’.

This is about measurement. Done for good reasons, it is critical to the control of our projects. But done for no good reason at all it can be a curse, eating up huge amounts of resource that could be better deployed doing something genuinely useful.

Input and output
System theory teaches us that raw data (the most basic stuff we measure) can be assembled into more structured Information and that this can be further refined into Intelligence. The transition from data to Intelligence requires insight into context, environment and intention and often an understanding of the domain. Data is essentially an input, whereas Intelligence is an output as it is used to help us do something else, perhaps to take a new step or an informed decision.

Is there a good reason for doing this?
Since the early nineteen eighties, when IBM, Apple and others put cheap and increasingly powerful computers on our desks, and then allowed them to talk to each other via networks, we have been duly measuring and recording more and more stuff. The rate at which this can be done increases not linearly but more like geometrically – as forecast by Moore’s Law.  

Relevant and useful measurement benefits the organisation and genuinely improves what it does. However, there is a suspicion that sometimes measurement is being done just because it can be done, perhaps because it gives the illusion of progress, or for reasons of justification (rather than enquiry). In other words, measurement for measurement’s sake.

It’s reasonable to infer that as the volume of our measurements increases geometrically, then so does the proportion that is pointless and a waste of time.

So how can we assess what is being pointlessly measured, and to stop doing it? Well, we should ask a simple and direct question for example:

  • “What critical decision is this information directly (or indirectly) supporting?”
  • “What will having this information do for us?” 
  • “If we don’t get this information, what would it stop us from doing?”  
  • “If we know this information, what behaviour can we change as a result?”

If no-one can honestly point to a relevant and conclusive answer, then it’s probably of little real value and you would be wise to spend your time doing something else more productive. 

Who reads this stuff and why?
Assuming you have decided that what you are measuring really is worthwhile, how do you know whether it’s reaching the right audience and helping them to make decisions? Do you know who are the clients for your information? Are you reporting it at the right time and in the right way?

Readership of electronic reports nowadays can be assessed via hit counters. If that’s available to you, it’s worth doing it. As before, you may be providing really critical Information or Intelligence, but if the decision makers aren’t reading it… then it would be a good idea to find out why, what stops them, what they are basing their decisions on (if not your information) and so on. Then adjust your range to hit the right targets. It’s always worth asking your audience direct questions like this as it can save time and effort.

Less is more
‘Managing by walking about’ is less in vogue these days, and can be a matter of personal style but it does have its advantages. Project leaders and managers who habitually and skilfully do this can find out more about what’s really going on at the coal-face. And wouldn’t it be great to refocus the project team on managing the project issues rather than spending a lot of time on the project measurement and reporting process?

Tim Lyons

Posted by Tim Lyons on 5th May 2016

About the Author

Tim Lyons is a programme and project manager, currently working on the Crossrail/Elizabeth Line programme. His project experience has been gained over a number of years and he serves as a member of the APM People SIG committeee. Tim holds national and international qualifications as a coach. An ex-broadcaster, he studied language and communication and writes about subjects where projects, coaching and communication intersect.

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