Optimizing, not Maximizing, Your Team's Output Matters Most

by Howard Tullman
October 27, 2014

Today, and every day from now on, the tools and technologies that permit us (and others) to observe and document more and more detailed information about everything that we (as well as all those around us) do, see, pay and say are continuing to exponentially  increase their power, scope and accuracy. Data is the oil of the digital age and we are generating unfathomable amounts. Not only are we swimming in it; we’re leaving a trail of digital exhaust everywhere we go to be captured, analyzed and output in real time and in ways that will increasingly permit third parties to anticipate and attempt to influence and change our behaviors. This flood of facts creates amazingly attractive opportunities and chilling challenges at the same time.

I’m not really concerned about big data and big government and the NSA; my interests are much closer to home and all about how we are using all this new information to most effectively manage and grow our businesses. I’ve said (practically forever) that keeping score matters and that, in most businesses, what gets measured (acknowledged and rewarded) is what gets done. I haven’t changed my belief in this regard so much as I have come to believe that we are putting too much emphasis strictly on the numbers. Numbers don’t lie, but they never tell the whole story. They can only take you so far before they top out and you need something more qualitative and experiential to get to the right conclusions.

Peter Drucker’s dictum that: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” has created a whole generation of analysts and others who are often so focused on perfecting their business’s  processes that they lose sight of the business’s purposes. I hear managers all the time talking about the need to get more work out of their people when they should be trying to get the best work out of them. Optimizing, not maximizing, the team’s output is what matters most to the ultimate success of the business. Working smarter and more impactfully - not necessarily longer or harder - is how you ultimately move your business away from and ahead of the competition.

So I think that we have to be exceedingly careful these days that we don’t let the ease of access and use and the ubiquity of massive amounts of quantitative performance data cause us to over-emphasize the math and measurements in our businesses (and in our lives) and thereby lose sight of the far more important qualitative attributes of what’s going on and the meaning and value (rather than just the metrics) of our various activities. Not everything is easy to measure or quantify, but that doesn’t make these things less important; it just makes our job as managers tougher. Human nature (being what it is) means we tend to gravitate toward the easy and the concrete rather than the harder and often vaguer vectors involving attitudes and behaviors. But when you get so comfortable with and wrapped up in the measurement process that it becomes a goal and an end in itself, you discover pretty quickly that it loses its effectiveness. In today’s frenzied work world, it’s easy to confuse movement with progress – but not all motion is forward – and lots of activities that run up the numbers aren’t remotely productive. Measuring more is easy; measuring better is tough.   

And when you let the numbers basically drive the train, you also give up two important advantages that are critical to your success. First, the goal isn’t to be the thermometer; it’s to be the thermostat. It’s not about measuring the heat; it’s about generating and controlling the heat. You don’t want the analytics to lead you; they’re a useful benchmark and a guide for course corrections, but it’s on you to set the direction and move the business forward. Second, when you get so focused on specific and concrete financial results (sales targets, growth rates, etc.) and you direct all your team’s energies toward getting as close to achieving those numbers as possible; you actually limit your ultimate upside because you lose the ability to think and see beyond those immediate goals. This means that when a game-changing opportunity, a quantum shift in your sales prospects,  or an out-of-the-box new direction appears; your team may be so heads-down and in the weeds pushing those budget numbers that someone else will come along and grab the new brass ring. 

I think that there’s some middle ground here and some ideas that can help you balance the temptation to take the easy way out with the need to deal with all the facts – even the fuzzy ones – in order to get the full picture. Here are three important perspectives to keep in mind:

1.  Elaboration is a Form of Pollution

Tell your team to keep it simple. No one gets paid by the page or the pound and shorter is almost always better. I’ve found that when people expand and extend their plans, proposals and presentations, there’s a high degree of likelihood that they’re concerned about the value of their pitch so they try to bury it in a boatload of facts and figures, charts and citations, and everything else that just hides the hard truth. It’s better for everyone for your people to put things right out there – front and center – and take their medicine if that’s what’s called for. If you torture the numbers long enough, they’ll say whatever you like, but that’s not any way to get to the truth or the right result.

2.  Not Everything is Worth Doing Well

Tell your team that everyone’s always on the clock. There’s an opportunity cost associated with everything we do and choosing what not to do and how extensively to do the things you need to do are critical in any startup which has scarce resources and even less time. One size or one approach never fits all of the possible cases. Some things just don’t warrant the full court press and it’s important to make sure that everyone knows that that’s O.K. with you. Other things shouldn’t be done at all and you should never try to do things cheaply that just aren’t worth doing. It’s never easy to turn people down or say “No” to marginal choices, but it’s part of the job and comes with the territory.   

3.  No One’s Ever Measured How Much the Heart Can Hold

Ultimately, the value of the critical connections your people make every day with your clients and customers can only be roughly approximated by even the best math. But it’s those daily personal and emotional interactions with your empowered employees that build the crucial engagement as well as the lifetime value of those buyers for your business. You need to give your team permission to do what’s best for the customer in the moment that the opportunity arises. If they need to consult a rule book or have a calculator handy to do the math, they’ll lose the value of the moment every time. The best businesses don’t worry about the number or sheer volume of moments – they work to make each moment matter.

PS: “You Get What You Work for, Not What You Wish for”    

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