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The Dark Side of Input Metrics

Input metrics can be helpful to track progress toward long-term goals, but they can cause issues if not used carefully. They might make people act in ways you didn’t expect, limit creativity, and lead to micromanaging.

Darth Vader as a Chart cartoon

When used for measuring performance, these metrics can push people to focus only on meeting the specific inputs, not the bigger picture. Imagine that one of your input metrics for a health improvement plan is "have a salad as a meal three times per week." Someone driven by the desire to fulfill the metric adds a small salad as a fourth meal but compensates by indulging in fast food and sweets for the remaining meals. Or they might eat dishes they can call salads but lacking in nutritional value—turning chili cheese fries into a questionable interpretation of a potato salad.

Even if you don’t directly judge someone’s performance based on these metrics, just focusing on them can stifle creativity. Input metrics tell you exactly what to do, and people can feel pressured to do only that instead of finding other, maybe better, ways to reach the real goal. If the goal is to eat a salad every day, you might miss out on discovering other healthy meals that are better options for you. The checklist says to eat a salad, so that’s what you do.

Both of these problems happen because the focus shifts from what you want to achieve to what you have to do. An input metric tells you "do this" instead of "achieve this."

If you’re going to use input metrics, you need to ensure that they also capture the intent and not just the activity. The intent of eating a salad three times a week is to replace some unhealthy meals with healthier ones. The real goal isn’t to eat things called salad. Eating salad was a proxy measurement in your quest to improve your nutrition and lose weight. You need to keep the end goal in sight and connect it to the input metric.

There’s an old joke about a cook who always cuts off the end of a roast before cooking it. When asked why, he says his mom did it that way. When they ask his mom, she says her mom did it that way. Finally, they ask Grandma, and she reveals it was because the butcher only sold roasts that were too big for her oven.

"We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way" is a hard habit to break in an organization. Input metrics risk becoming company rules. If they aren’t always linked back to the purpose, you’ll start to get people performing the activity even when it no longer serves the goal.

The third way input metrics can become harmful is when they are set outside of the team. The people doing the work must be the ones that choose which inputs to measure. An input metric is "do this" instead of "achieve this." When they’re set by a manager, that’s micromanagement.

Input metrics are only helpful when they’re chosen by the people doing the work. They’re only useful when they’re used as a way to predict progress toward future outcomes. If they are used in any other way, they can slow down progress and stop creativity.

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