How to Stop Measuring the Wrong Things

Mar 4, 2022

We all know that what gets counted counts, but what do you do when you know the wrong things are getting counted (i.e., measured)?

First, we need to really understand why what gets counted counts. What gets counted tends to convey a level of importance. Yet some of the things deemed most important to us and our organizations tend not to be counted or valued. This is important because depending on what you count, you will use your resources to create the conditions to count those things––making them the most important things over time. It is a question of seeing & hearing. You want to see the things you can count, or hear about them, so you can report them and prove success.Let’s look at an example with churches. For many churches, the thing we count tends to be attendance. We measure attendance and growth, and then we tend to put all of our resources into creating something people can attend. The issue here is that measuring attendance doesn’t speak to the impact of making disciples or loving our neighbors. Instead, it assumes that those other impacts (making disciples/loving neighbors) will simply happen if people come to church. This can be a risky assumption to operate on when you allocate funds and resources to an unmeasured, and therefore unknown, outcome.

Let’s look at another example with countries. For countries, we tend to measure the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to tell us how an economy is performing. While this measurement is important, it focuses primarily on growth and not thriving of a population. In an article written for Scientific America in August of 2020, Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz writes, “The GDP measures market output: the monetary value of all the goods and services produced in an economy during a given period, usually a year. ... It does not even measure crucial aspects of the economy such as its sustainability: whether or not it is headed for a crash.” This measurement also tells us nothing about how the market output does or does not correlate to people’s well-being. (For more on this, check out Kate Rayworth, Donut Economics). These examples can bring pause for concern and invite the questions: Are we measuring the wrong things? Are we measuring what truly matters to us? Once you start to realize you might be measuring the wrong things, what do you do?

Slow Down

The first thing to do is to look at why you are measuring what you are measuring. Then ask, is this telling you anything about the change you want to see through your work? Is it helping you see what is working or not working? Is it helping you make better decisions? What do you really want to know about the impact of your programs or work? You have to create the time and space to explore and ask these questions.

Get Specific

Be really clear in understanding the problem you are seeking to solve, or about the change you are hoping to make, and why it matters. We ask people to answer the following question:  What is the change you want to make, or the transformation you want to see in either people, a place, policy or systems.  Once you answer that question, then the impact you are trying to have will be easier to articulate. Once you can articulate your desired impact, you will have a better sense of what you want to measure.

Understand Your Stakeholders

Understand who is asking you to measure what and why. What do others want to know about your impact? Are they invested in your impact, and if so, why? Being clear about who is investing in the impact and what they want to see is crucial. Often it is the misunderstanding with stakeholders that creates the misalignment of measurement. If your stakeholders ask you to measure something that you think is irrelevant, make a case for measuring a different way. If you have gotten clear about the problem you want to solve, that should help you make a case for measuring differently.

Articulate the Theory of Change

A theory of change helps you to understand and convey the way a program works. Once you understand the change you want to make, ask, “how will that change happen?” What is the process to get to that change? What are the means to that impact? The answers to these questions will become your theory of change. When you have gotten to this point, you can then play out and test your assumptions about how it contributes to social change. Articulating your theory of change can also help stakeholders and funders hold out and give things time to work, and you can start looking for early signs of impact.

Give It Time—But Communicate Early and Often.

Impact doesn’t happen overnight. Value the early signs of change; the green shoots that come out of the ground in early spring point to the fact that blooms will come. The frost might get them first, but you have a reason to be hopeful. Tell the story of the green shoots, and if the frost does come, tell that story, too.

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