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The Purpose of Setting Success Metrics is Not to Achieve Them

Your success metrics should start providing value for the project from Day 1, well before the results are measured.  Let me start off with the key point so that you don’t have to read all the way through to get there:  the purpose of creating success metrics is to begin action in a purposeful direction mindfully.  Many things will change before the end of a project.  Your company, your industry, and the world in general will change significantly and unpredictably before your project is completed.  Most of your success metrics may be tossed in the trash can by the time your product launches, but that does not matter as long as the goal at the end of the project matches current market realities.  And, by the time the metric is measured, most of the heavy lifting it needed to do should already be complete.

First off:  what are success metrics?  They are statements about specific desired outcomes which help ensure business objectives are met.  As the name states, they determine whether or not a project was successful.  If the success metric is attained, the project is considered a success.

Don’t be afraid to change your success metrics.  It is very possible that your business has changed enough that achieving your original success metrics would not help your business in any way.  Also, your team may have learned so many things during the project that the old goal doesn’t matter anymore, the team has seen greener pastures elsewhere.  It is critical that when changes occur, you do not hesitate to change the project’s success metrics.  Even if they contradict your original success metrics, they must be changed to reflect the new situation.  Never let your success metrics hold you back.  If you are two years into a large project, the chances are high that the success metrics you originally set have become a millstone that is dragging your project into irrelevance.

Since most people believe that the purpose of success metrics is achieving them, I often think about what that means in practice.  Let’s look at the simple example of a success metric:  increasing sales 25% in one year.  The team works for a year to develop and launch the product, and then one year after launch the metric is measured.  This is, by definition, the first time you can measure this metric.  Whether the metric is achieved or not at this first measurement point, the project is over.  The team has disbanded and moved on.  Some of them may have retired or moved to Amsterdam.  The project budget has already been spent and the drunken escapades from the end-of-project celebration party have long been forgotten.  Certainly your metric is not helping the project at this point.  When the actual measurement is made, the higher-ups are deciding whether to discontinue the product already due to low sales.  If your success metrics were going to add any value, they certainly should have a long time ago.

Do success metrics contribute to your project even if they change?  Absolutely.  Only by setting off in a specific direction do you realize whether that direction needs to be changed.  Setting any success metric, no matter how irrelevant by the end of the project, encourages your team to be more mindful about success.  Is the goal the right one?  Should it change?  It usually takes a few months of executing a project before everyone realizes the goal is wrong.  The time you spend working on a project is the time you need to also consider the relevance of your success metrics and whether they should be changed.  The easiest way to waste resources would be to set the success metrics and then stop questioning them.  Just because the CEO sets the metrics doesn’t mean they are the right metrics.  Perhaps the most subordinate team member has discovered something during the course of the project that makes the current goal worthless.  It is the job of the project team to bring that information to light and propose new success metrics based on the new information.

What matters with success metrics is not achieving them but how they influence the team’s progress throughout the project.  The team must analyze what they are doing every day and how it contributes to the success metrics.  They must make key project decisions using the success metric as a guiding star.  They must constantly reconsider whether the success metric is worthwhile.  It is this steering of the project that is the purpose of the success metric, and all of this is done long before it becomes a single cell on an accountant’s spreadsheet when it is first measured years after the project is over.


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