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Are you Measuring the Least Important Reality?

Organizations operate on two levels.

There are the presenting facts and metrics, these are readily observed and measured.   Then there are the nuances, the attitude of the players, their focus, or lack thereof, the details and daily conversations.  These seemingly behind the scenes subtleties are what makes or breaks an organization.

In John Steinbeck’s classic book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, he writes about the two ways to experience a powerful fish:

“The Mexican Sierra [a kind of fish] has ‘XVII-15-IX’ spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the Sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colour pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational external reality has come into being”

The alternative would be to, “Sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colourless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth ‘D. XVII-15-IX.’ There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.”

Steinbeck’s eloquent passage beautifully differentiates between experience and measurement.  In an organization – be it a multi-national corporation, a local school, or a family – the obvious measures are often in Steinbeck’s words “the least important reality of the institution.”  Yet sadly, the measurements are what many organizations emphasize the most.  Many leaders miss the, “A whole new relational external reality has come into being” portion.

For example, if a leader is trying to help their service team improve client engagement, they can measure the number of times people talk to customers.  Yet this metric misses the most important reality: the quality of the conversations.  It’s not hard to see how an organization that focuses exclusively on number of calls, could generate lots of meaningless customer interactions.  They might even wind up eroding client relationships by annoying them with unproductive outreach.  When a team is trying to win on the metric, they’ll start dialing for dollars.  Rather than true engagement, the measurement will become the endgame.

When leaders distill every aspect of daily operations into quantifiable measurements, they lose the qualitative elements of the experience that could make their organization unique.

The challenge is, qualitative elements, like the fish pulsing on the deck or the depth of client conversations, which are harder to measure than the number of spines or outbound calls.  Qualitative elements require training, focus, and coaching.  They’re not simple to track.  That’s why most organizations give up, and settle for the “least important reality.”

When I was a young parent, I read studies about the impact nightly dinners have on children: stronger connections, improved school performance, better health, increased confidence, all the things you want for your child.  Yet I also realized, simply eating the dinner is not enough.  Meaningful interaction is the secret sauce. So while we worked to hit the metric (nightly dinners) we put our attention on the qualitative elements.  We worked to teach our kids the art of conversation, how to listen, how to discuss current issues and how to support each other as a family.  They also learned how to help create the experience.  We weren’t perfect parents. We didn’t get it right every time, but from interpersonal perspective, the dinners became the most important reality of our family.

As a leader you have a choice, you can focus on the least important reality, or you can challenge yourself and your team to bring a whole new reality into being.