Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Corporate Culture: Counting The Uncountable

Stand by me.

You can’t measure love.

I was in a meeting not long ago with a client whose organization is undergoing a significant transformation. We were discussing what needed to change and how we might promote the appropriate change efforts. A senior executive spoke up to say, “Well, you get what you measure.” Nobody challenged the assumption behind the thought and we began to focus on how to measure change in the organization.

I had, of course, heard similar statements many times before. Business schools emphasize measurement as a key ingredient of management. As a leader, you point the way, establish some key measurements, and then harvest the results. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

But think about the things that we don’t bother to measure – or that we don’t know how to measure. These include love, respect, hope, initiative, creativity, open-mindedness, ability to resolve conflicts, receptiveness to new ideas, focus, drive, and resilience. Do we really not care about these things?

We tell managers that the most important thing they can do is build a positive, engaging organizational culture. (See here and here). We also tell them they can only get what they measure. Yet many of the components of culture are simply not measureable. I have yet to hear a manager say, “In the third quarter, we increased corporate resilience by 3.2% compared with the same quarter in the previous year.”

So, how do we help managers build a positive culture even when they can’t measure it? Here are some thoughts:

  • The answer is not a number on a piece of paper. It’s OK to look at numbers but we need to remember that a number is an abstraction of a measurement that is an abstraction of reality. Looking only at numbers is like driving your car by looking only at the speedometer.
  • Trust is an unrecognized but important ingredient. We focus on measurement partially because we don’t trust our eyes, and ears, and subordinates. A measurement is supposed to give us an “objective” view of the organization. But a measurement is only as objective as the person taking the measurement – which is to say, not very. If we can create a culture built on trust, we can learn more about our organization than a measurement will ever tell us. (In this regard, it’s useful to review Edwards Deming’s 14 points of management and his red bead experiment).
  • Learning to observe is more important than learning to measure. We forget that measurement is just one form of observation. Management by walking around still works. Taking groups of employees out to dinner will teach you more than a spreadsheet will. Practice being naïve – ask questions that a rookie would ask. You may think you don’t need to ask certain questions because you already know the answer. But you’re probably wrong.
  • A good conversation is more important than a staff meeting. Staff meetings can be useful but they’re also very structured. You get the information that the structure permits. A good conversation is much more open-ended. You can wander about until you touch on the really important issues.
  • Questions are more important than answers. A number from a measurement purports to give us an answer. But it only answers the question you asked – and the answer may not be accurate. Learn how to ask probing questions that get rich and unexpected answers. Tip: a good course on critical thinking will help.

I think we obsess about measurement because we have a bad case of physics envy. We want our organization to behave like a physics experiment. If we apply Force X, we get Result Y. It doesn’t work that way and never will. Time to get over the measurement mania.

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