Measures of Success

How does an organization measure its workers’ success? In traditional service, sales, or manufacturing industries, the means of measuring a worker’s productivity is built-in. But how does an organization composed of knowledge workers measure success?

I’m not a fan of the term knowledge worker but I can’t think of an equivalent label that refers to technical people who work on a computer all day and whose output is not measured in terms of physical artifacts. People who work all day and may have very little to actually show for it, but who are vital to their organization’s success.

Many companies have performance review systems where employees rate their own efforts in the prior year. But in the places I’ve worked, these performance appraisals are never taken very seriously—just as a minor hoop to jump through with management before talk of year-end bonuses or raises. But I want to continually improve, so I do put some thought into my stated goals and whether I can truthfully say I’ve met or exceeded them. But since I struggle to find provable metrics to show I’m meeting my goals, I’m always left wondering, “how do other people with even more nebulous jobs than mine come up with meaningful metrics?” There’s never discussion of personal performance goals among colleagues because that leads to comparison and performance comparison leads to salary comparison—and public discussion of salary is taboo in American business culture.1 But if coworkers did openly and honestly discuss their goals and how they contribute to those of the organization, wouldn’t there be more accountability and cooperation?

Despite having a job that does have some measurable success metrics, finding meaningful metrics is something I struggle with. As a software developer, I can produce some concrete metrics—such as number of bugs fixed, lines of code written2, percent of test coverage expanded, successful deployments, new features shipped on time, etc. Yet as I’ve progressed in my career these things matter less and less. Rather, more fuzzy, nebulous skills—like the ability to quickly diagnose and fix problems as they arise, teaching and mentoring others, guiding the design and architecture of new features, or clearly communicating with less-technical stakeholders—are what become more valuable to the organization and oftentimes more personally satisfying. So while the raw-number stats may flatline or actually worsen, the meaningful skills that are hard to track feel like they’re improving.

Keeping a log of accomplishments and wins helps, but the evidence of continued growth is more anecdotal and less measurable than raw numbers alone. Asking for, and getting, truthful feedback from colleagues or mentors or managers—and how they see you progressing—is hard, but the added, honest insight of those you work with can be valuable.

Everyone’s stated goal is to improve. But when your job expands beyond its bullet-point description and includes many different roles and responsibilities, what are the specific things that can be improved? And how can they actually be measured so that you know you’re improving?

  1. A different post for a different day, perhaps…

  2. A horrible thing to measure, but I’ve seen it measured and touted as something meaningful. ಠ_ಠ