The Right Way to Measure Work Performance: Results, Not Tasks

measure work performance results not tasks

Most startups fail.

Most novelists have day jobs.

Most actors barely scrape by, totally unnoticed.

And yet…

A few startups make millions, a few novelists get read around the world, and a few actors are among the most recognizable people on the planet.

It’s not fair, but it’s true. You could buy a thousand startups with the $1 billion that the founders of Instagram sold their company for, and you could pick the names of a thousand random authors from a hat and J.K. Rowling would likely outsell them all, combined.

These outliers almost certainly work harder than the average person, but they don’t work one thousand times harder. And yet it doesn’t matter. They still get one thousand times the results.

In light of this, one thing is clear: If you’re looking to measure work performance across your company, don’t measure success by the number of tasks completed. After all, successful startups and failed startups both work on the same task (i.e., building a startup).

Measuring the number of tasks completed isn’t the point.

The point is results.

So, how do you best measure results across your company?

1. Get specific about success.

How often have you heard verbal reports along the lines of “the results have been great so far,” or “we’ve seen a really enthusiastic response”?

These vague statements might be true, but they might also be a way to cloak failure. Best to dig into specifics, exploring what metrics are behind words like “great” or “really enthusiastic.” Once you set up dynamic ways to measure metrics tied to a task, you might find that “great” and “really enthusiastic” mean wildly different things to different people. Specific metrics ensure everyone is on the same page.

To create a culture that values specifics, encourage all team members to call out vague statements and back them up with evidence. Ask, “What does success look like?” and don’t settle for nebulous answers.

Evidence will bring you power in your business. Vague statements won’t. Frank Gilbreth, an early pioneer of scientific management,  wrote, “Advancement of the human factor ... varies so much that unless we use measurement and abide by the results, there is no possibility of repeating the process accurately and efficiently at will, or of predicting and controlling the future conditions that assure that advancement.” In other words, specific measurements give you the power to improve the present and predict the future. So embrace a culture that values specifics above fuzzy language.

2. Track competing metrics, watching for tradeoffs.

It’s worth noting that even specific metrics can be misleading. For instance, a marketing team might be ecstatic when they see their conversion rate increase after implementing pop-up banners on their website. But they might not realize that those pop-ups may be damaging their long-term brand loyalty. Similarly, it’s critical to track whether aggressive sales tactics end up helping or hurting your sales funnel. These tactics might work in the short term, but they might also corrode the business.

To really achieve success, watch for blind spots. Track a multiplicity of metrics for each key area you want to focus on, ensuring that increasing results on one front doesn’t decrease results on another front you care about more.

3. Track performance with two-way visibility.

At a theoretical level, everyone understands the importance of results. That’s why most business leaders encourage people at every level to create key objectives. The problem is that too often these business leaders can’t see whether work across the company is moving the needle on key objectives in real-time. Likewise, knowledge workers too often are working hard without being able to see how their work rolls up into their company objectives.

Without dynamic two-way visibility, performance suffers. Executives can’t see when a project is falling off the rails in the moment it matters (i.e., before the quarter ends, not after), and employees are blind to how their work ties to their company’s mission. When this happens, team members revert to what they know best: measuring success by the number of tasks completed. But that strategy only masks rather than solves the problem, contributing to the fragmented and disconnected nature of the digital work crisis.

If you want to measure results, implement with two-way visibility.

4. Focus on five work performance indicators.

As Workfront CEO Alex Shootman writes in his book Done Right, companies should focus on the five work performance indicators of mix, capacity, velocity, quality, and engagement. Heather Hurst expounded on these five WPIs earlier this week.

Here are key questions to ask to make sure you’re measuring all five:

  1. Mix: What portion of work is being done to run the business compared to the portion of work being done to change the business? Make sure your mix ratio reflects your stated company objectives. (You might be surprised by how few resources you’re devoting to change once you start measuring mix.)
  2. Capacity: What is the total capacity for work across the company, and are employees living up to that capacity? Another way to ask this is, what percentage of the work week are employees focused on their primary tasks? Our State of Work report has found that the answer to this question has hovered at 40% for the past five years. Do you know if that matches the capacity utilization where you work? If not, find out. You could be functioning at 60% below capacity simply because your employees are focused on secondary, low-value tasks.
  3. Velocity: How long does it take employees to get things done? Do you have the ability to dynamically see how often people fall behind schedule? If not, you’re likely not aware of what you need to do to improve velocity.
  4. Quality: Did your results match your expectations? To measure quality, you have to have clear metrics in place from the outset to define success — and then make sure that those metrics don’t shift in light of failed efforts.
  5. Engagement: Do your employees believe their work matters? Do they want to pitch in beyond what’s expected of them? Would they recommend their workplace to a friend? If you haven’t asked employees questions about their engagement, why not? It’s as simple as creating a digital survey and sending it.

Are you measuring all five of these work performance indicators? If not, get a plan in place to track them all. They’ll illuminate areas where you can quickly grow.

5. Believe in the possibility of 10x growth.

There’s no reason you can’t see exponential success — even if your company has been around for decades. The founders of Purple Mattress, for instance, had been selling early versions of their cushion products since the early 1990s, enjoying moderate success. Then, in 2015, they created a new mattress product and revamped their marketing efforts, help them reach a market valuation of $500 million in just a few years. Purple was an “overnight success,” decades in the making.

Can you do something similar by finding a completely new way to do business? Let your metrics and measurements empower your vision. As Grant Cardone, author of the 10x Rule wrote, “never do what others do. You must be willing to do what they won't do—and even take actions that you might deem "unreasonable."

Go ahead and be unreasonable. Set a grand vision (bigger than a list of tasks!), then enjoy your results.