Finding the Metrics that Matter

by Emily Jasper on February 20, 2012

A friend of mine asked me if I would review his resume before he begins job hunting. Before he sent it over to me, I made sure to tell him to include any metrics of success for his projects. Penelope Trunk had given me that advice once upon a time. She essentially told me that if you can’t provide numbers to attest to how successful you were, a recruiter could assume you weren’t successful at all.

A few years ago when I got that advice, I had to go back and think about the projects I had worked on: Did I have any metrics? Which metrics would be valuable? Why hadn’t I thought about this when I first started the project?

Since then, I have always thought about which numbers would show growth or cost savings, increased efficiency or potential market share. Especially in marketing, it is critical to find measures for success. In today’s world where managers need to streamline programs and avoid unnecessary costs, those measures can make the difference between whether or not a project actually happens.

If you ever work in operations, you will hear about KPIs. Key Performance Indicators represent some of these metrics that a company/project/production line would measure to assess how that company/project/production line is doing. Number of units or dollars sold, percent at capacity and minutes of downtime. Those numbers are important.

But not as important as the context. 

A number cannot stand on its own without some context to give it some meaning. I have the luxury of working on that concept everyday in an MBA program. We work on company cases with 10-15 pages of numbers in the exhibits, enjoying the benefit of hindsight that gives us an opportunity to make sense of the numbers and the trends these poor companies obviously missed.

In the hustle and bustle of working life, is it really so easy to see those trends?

It may not if you have no idea which of the numbers are going to provide meaning to your progress. It could take a lot of trial and error, or you may need to rely on industry setting some benchmarks; however, it is important to get at the key numbers that truly demonstrate whether or not a project is successful.

Part of finding those numbers is defining success. You can build projects around great numbers, but those great numbers can be deceiving. Measuring the web is an excellent example of this: we look at eyeballs and visits, tweets and shares. Some of those measures can be important (and you might need some baseline standards), but the real question is: Are those numbers measuring what is really relevant to you? 

A consultant may be more than willing to tell you exactly which numbers you should care about, but at the end of the day, you need to make it your job to really understand which metrics are meaningful. This isn’t just for while you are working, but also for your own professional identity. You should know exactly how you can demonstrate you were successful.

If you already haven’t worked on this, start thinking about the numbers. Look at the changes in those numbers and pull out the meaning behind the changes. We can assume you did your job, but how well did you do it? That’s the key number. 

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