A good number for a birthday but not for a metric!

A good number for a birthday but not for a metric!

In the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that nine rings of power were created, however a single ring was then fashioned to bind them all.  The goal on many metrics programs is to find the “one ring,” or to create a single metric that will accurately reflect the past, predict the future and track changes.  The creation of a single, easily understood metric that can satisfy all of these needs is the holy grail of all metrics programs. To date the quest for the one metric has been fruitless. However while the quest should continue until both research and testing can be done, adopting a single metric can be dangerous.

A single, understandable metric would have substantial benefits, ranging from the ability to provide an improved communications platform, to a tool to support process improvement activities on areas of the organization where change can make a difference in the metric. An example of a single metric is the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), which summarizes a large number of individual measures (individual stock prices) into a single easily explainable index. Whether you like or dislike the DJIA most everyone can interpret changes in the index and trends over time. Every daily business program en Market Place (American Public Media, heard on National Public Radio) reports the performance of the DJIA. The problem is when DJIA becomes the only number bereft of context that a problem begins to occur. Often the simplicity has become a narcotic.

Anyone attempting to find a one metric solution (or to use the one metric solutions currently marketed) have a tough hill to climb. There are issues with a one metric solution that must be addressed when designing and developing the solution.  The first of these issues is context. What is important to one organization is different what is important to another and what is important today may not be important tomorrow. How would a single metric morph to reflect these complexities? Lord of the Rings had fewer changes in goals than a typical IT department. A second category of issues ranges is environmental complexity. Complexity includes the interactions between the metric and the human users through the basic mathematical complexity of creating a metric with both the historical and predictive power required.  In my opinion, the most intricate issues swirl around the metrics/human interaction.  In general people will use any measure for wildly divergent purposes ranging providing status to identifying process improvement. Each different use triggers a different behavior.

When seeking a single metric we need to answer the bottom line question is the effort worth the cost. Stated in a less black and white manner, will any single metric be more valuable as a communication tool than the loss of information and transparency that the metric would have?