We measure, in part, so we can predict what is around the next corner.

We measure, in part, so we can predict what is around the next corner.

Why do we measure? The question, with its sheer simplicity, always stops me in my tracks. It is easy to respond with a number of high-minded and academic reasons describing why you should measure. The reasons include:

  • To measure performance,
  • To ensure our processes are efficient,
  • To provide input for managing,
  • To estimate, and
  • To pass a CMMI appraisal (I really did not say that, but I might have).

All are true, important and common reasons to measure, but the answer isn’t complete. On reflection I would add two further reasons to measure:

  • To control specific behavior, and
  • To predict the future.

When we measure we are sending an explicit message about what is important to the organization, and therefore sending an explicit signal on how we expect people to act. Remember the old adage, “you get what you measure”. If you truly get what you measure, then measuring a specific outcome will change relative importance of that outcome in relation to all other outcomes. We have known for a long time that there is a link between measurement and behavior; therefore we can use measurement to guide behavior. Measuring requires us not only to examine the outcome we want to incent, but the impact it can have on the whole system that generates that output.

The pursuit of predicting the future is a mainstay of human culture. We practice prediction daily, like being able to predict whether there is a predator behind the next rock, whether planting corn or soybeans will bring a greater profit or even whether you favorite sports team will win their next match. Measurement provides the data to predict the future in a more disciplined manner than guessing based on instincts.

Changing behavior and predicting the future are related.  It might almost be redundant to answer the question with both answers.  Incenting a behavior is a mechanism for not only predicting the future by influencing the future but also a means to control the outcome. Why do we measure?  The answer must include the common reasons, along with the ideas of measuring to control behavior and to predict the future.

The future is about choices taken and not taken.

The future is about choices taken and not taken.

Is the future something to experience as it unfolds or something to purposefully influence? I recently read an article in the Collins College of Business Summer Magazine from the University of Tulsa (my uncle taught there). In the message from the Dean, A. Gale Sullenberger said tomorrow begins today. Perhaps it was that I was reading the article in the quiet, reflective part of the morning that this well-worn phrase struck me or that the future was on my mind but that morning the phrase, tomorrow begins today cause pause to think.  More importantly, I think tomorrow began last week. Every choice, large or small, we make influences the choices that can be made in the future, whether we recognize those choices today or tomorrow.

Dean Sullenberger is right when he says the future begins today because decisions we make today will create new choices that we can make tomorrow or next week. However the choices that are available today are a reflection of the choices made in the past.  We need to recognize inopportune or ill-considered choices and planned around them. Every choice we make needs to be made with consideration and thoughtfulness. Every choice opens new paths and closes others.

Cemetary Angel

We spend a lot of time memorializing the past. Celebrating lives, successes and remembering what has gone before. In many cases remembering helps us avoid the mistakes of the past. The problem is that the many ideas and innovations of the past were one time events or were built on attitudes and behaviors that changed. The Internet will not be invented again and the idea that the world is really flat is not going gain traction again. Holding on to ideas and attitudes based on outdated premises will rob you and your organization of value.

Remember and learn from the past but recognize that the past is just that, past. New ideas might need to be shaped by the past but ultimately the constraints applied must reflect the world as it is today and will be tomorrow.

The State of How
Thomas Cagley

I recently spent a Saturday morning listening to a presentation on business advisory panels and business coaches. During the portion of the agenda focused on coaching, Jack Mencini, a business coach, discussed a concept he called the “state of how” and how getting stuck in that state could be a near death experience for businesses. Simply put the “state of how” is getting stuck focusing in an endless stream of questions about day to day operations. While getting the day to day work done is important, the continuous focus only on the “here and now” can root you too strongly to the present at the expense of true progress.

Is the act of having living in the “state of how” the enemy of vision? Mr. Mencini suggested that if we are stuck exclusively in the day to day grind then looking forward becomes nearly impossible. Without a vision of the future, our guidance system will be driven by what we see in front of us which will be the how questions and problems of the present. All process improvement and measurement leaders must strike a balance. In order to be effective in today’s business environment, leaders need to hold both the day-to-day operational issues and a vision in the future in their minds eye.

The vision of where we want to go in the future is the anchor that will guide how we answer the “how” questions that are required to drive day-to-day operations. While the how questions might not be exactly an endless stream, if you do not have a guidance system then the answer for each question may well present an infinite range of answers. Having a vision of the future and holding that vision in the front of your mind, acts as an anchor that draws the day-to-day actions in a common direction much akin to the effect that a black hole has on matter and energy. While Jack Mencini was not speaking directly to process improvement and measurement leaders, the message that getting stuck in the “state of how” places a barrier between you and the future, needs to be heard loud and clear.

This essay was podcast on the Sofware Process and Measurement Cast 53 which features an interview with Capers Jones
http://bit.ly/ulZBQ

We Are All Futurists
Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

We’re all futurists, whether we are trying to predict little things like whether our favorite sporting team will do well in tomorrow’s game or bigger things like whether we will love and cherish a significant other for longer than the lease on a new car.  In either case we are constrained by the quality of the data that is available to predict from, our ability to perceive disruptions in the flow of the past into the future and how much we really believe in our forecast.  Constraints can make some people uncomfortable with the possibility of being wrong which leads them to eschew making predictions.

 
Predictions as a general rule are built on the belief that what happened in the past has some bearing on what will happen in the future.  The bearing can be as simple as describing a starting point to as complex as defining a starting point, direction, speed, potential impact and duration of an event. Put another way predictions range from the fairly simple to mind staggeringly complex (read an economics journal to fill in the frame of reference).  Knowledge requires data that can be consumed and transformed.  Knowledge of the past requires that we have data about what has happened and why it has happened.  This leads us directly to the need to collect data as it is created.  Collecting data as it is created reduces the risk of having to perform archaeological research on events later on.  The more precise and rich the data is the better the understanding we will have about the past.  Observation and measurement are requirements and the better at these skills you are the less likely you will be to falling prey to thinking you are beginning in one place and when actually you’re somewhere else.

 
I’ve heard the curse “may you live in exciting times” attributed to a Chinese philosopher and while some excitement is fun, it probably complicates predictions, forecasts and estimates.  Regardless of the degree I may have paraphrased the curse; the curse describes the essential problem with all forecasts.  Simply put predictions can become boat anchors when disruptions or shocks occur.  Disruptions are even more problematic when they are not recognized. Shocks and disruptions can lead to predictions becoming merely interesting artifacts and dangerous if used for guidance.  I would suggest that knowing that shocks will occur does not mean you should shy away for trying to predicting the future but rather that you should spend time observing.  Observing more than the narrow slice of your specialty increases the likelihood that you will see the shock or disruption as it builds or occurs.  Note that shocks and disruptions are far rarer than the combination of poor logic, poor data and poor effort.

 
Belief in a prediction can have a significant impact on whether some forecasts (assuming the prediction is rational to begin with) come true.  Belief can drive the amount of effort you are will expect making a forecast true.  The whole concept of “a self fulfilling prophecy” is an admission that what we believe can affect how we act.  How we act can affect the outcome of a process for better or worse.  Unless you are supposed to be producing an independent prediction or estimate recognize and harness the energy that a prediction can generate and use it to your benefit.

 Estimation is a critical tool in the all fields in information technology.  By definition an estimate is a prediction of the future therefore are apt to be incorrect.  Estimates are affected by the quality of the data we have from the past, our ability to discern whether we are being impacted by shocks and disruptions and whether or not the organization believes that the estimate is viable.  Failing one or more of these areas is a prescription for ending up somewhere far, far away however putting your head in the sand and deciding not play is even more self limiting.