Communication is not usually uni-directional.
One of the most tragic errors young metrics programs can make is the field of dreams syndrome: measure it and they will find it useful. Questions surface such as: ‘Why isn’t anyone using our measures?’ Or ‘Why isn’t anyone interested?’ Dashboards and reports are created and no one cares. There are at least two underlying problems: insular vision and lack of validation.
Field of Dreams
”A metric program is ineffective unless it is linked directly to a set of goals, mission or vision.”
— Michael Sanders, former CIO of Transamerica Life
The field of dreams syndrome begins with a metrics vision in a single person’s head (an executive or measurement guru). When this vision is then translated into tables and charts without socialization and presented as a fully formed measurement program – problem number one. In some cases this issue is not a problem, the culture in some organizations is used to strong individual leaders driving their points of view into the organization. It becomes a problem when the lack of socialization translates into a communication problem. Potential users do not know how the metrics created, where the data (and requests for that data) came from, what it measures and, most importantly, what to do with it. Why is Joe measuring my performance based on his view of what is right? Regardless of how the syndrome expresses, at this point good numbers have gone bad.
“It is of paramount importance for an organization to ensure that the proper decisions are made based upon the best (most accurate) data available.”
—David Herron, David Consulting Group
Misinformation can be caused by numerous situations ranging from errors and misunderstandings to lack of knowledge. Any of these situations can cause a breakdown in communication. How you address misinformation once it’s found is an important topic. If misinformation is swept under the covers, Good Numbers will Go Bad. Directly addressing the underlying cause of misinformation is usually the correct answer. The corporate culture of some organizations can make it impossible to directly address the problem. Therefore making an indirect approach is sometimes the only means of addressing and correcting the misinformation. In either case, you need to find a means of addressing the problem. Remember that an un-lanced boil feasters. Like a boil, uncorrected misinformation will tend to fester and destroy the credibility of the metrics program, and perhaps the staff that maintains it.
Good Numbers Go Bad not only when data or information is wrong or miscommunicated; it happens when the silence around the data collected is deafening. When data and information enters a black hole never to be seen again, it always causes a negative reaction. The first problem that occurs is that the effort to create the report data will quickly be questioned. This is an easy way to generate the wrong kind of attention during budget season. The second and more important point is that conspiracy theorists will assume that something is being hidden. When people believe something is being hidden, they will create their own story that will rarely be kind to the metrics program. Transparency must be the central principle for any metrics program. Show the data, explain what is done with it, that how it will be used and is being reported. Remember that show and tell really shouldn’t stop in kindergarten. Communication is the prescription for Good Numbers Gone Bad.
Late night television is the home of the monologue. Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon use monologues to make us laugh. Their only feedback is the laugh track. The unidirectional flow of the information is an important feature of a monologue. Late night comedy and metrics presentations shouldn’t have this in common (albeit a bit of levity is probably a good thing). Most metrics reports and presentations are approached as if they were monologues rather than dialogs.
The monologue approach occurs for a number of reasons. The first is the confusion of the volume/value attribute. Metrics programs need to show value, and the two attributes of volume and value are sometimes confused (the more the merrier isn’t the case here). When these concepts are confused, it seems that the goal of a metrics presentation seems to be to show every bit of data ever collected, crammed into charts (or slides). Then to tell anyone who will listen what they mean (also known as death by slides). Focusing on volume chokes the ability to hold a dialog. Volume and value/quality are unrelated attributes. An old adage states, ”a designer has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to be taken away.” (Read any or all of Edward Tufte’s books.) Design your presentation to evoking action by the recipient. Simplicity and minimalism are concepts that need to be used when designing your presentation tool. Show pictures, but have the data. Once you have a tool to aid your communication, the next step is to use the tool to facilitate a dialog as the basis for creating understanding. A dialog provides a platform for the metrics team to affect behavior of the organization and to absorb information about how work is being done. Wikis and blogs are means of creating this type of dialog.
Another idea to combat monologue is to recognize that presentations and handouts are not the same thing. Presentations are structures to create dialogs; handouts are one-way vehicles, monologues.