So much of what we do at work has to be measured. There is a sense that, if something cannot be measured, does it even really exist? Certainly, if a project or function can not demonstrate how it is being measured in a clear, understandable manner, its ability to secure approval or signoff is dramatically reduced.

Metrics, key performance indicators, objectives and key results (OKRs), being able to measure progress – it all links back to a need within organisations to ultimately quantify return on investment.  When we all worked in one place, most metrics were tied to outputs – achieve sales targets, ship code, maintain a positive net promoter score. 

Changing environments demand new metrics

But how have those ways of measurement changed in the last year? Do they take into account the challenges and opportunities that come with remote working? As Dan Montgomery, the founder and managing director of Agile Strategies, said, the current situation “is a great opportunity to get better at managing people around outcomes rather than tasks or, worse yet, punching a virtual clock to prove they’re working. Many employees working from home genuinely have big challenges, including bored kids, sick relatives and an unending stream of bad news. They need the flexibility right now and will appreciate your trust in them.”

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Having that flexibility is particularly critical in uncertain times. “Now more than ever, the goals that we’re setting are so critical for us to be able to navigate what happens next,” Ryan Panchadsaram, co-founder and head coach of What Matters said.

Defining a clear vision

But how do we set those goals? One mistake many businesses make is not aligning targets and objectives throughout the business. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a start-up, a scale up or an established sector leader, without a goal at the company level, you’re lost. Chris Newton, VP of Engineering at Immersive Labs, calls this “Vision – it all needs to have a really clear, inspiring, well understood company vision that is really guiding every department in the business. Not just product and tech, but you’re talking about the whole wider business. There has to be a direction, a clear direction for the company.”

Chris was talking as part of a recent Indorse Engineering Leaders panel discussion. Once you have that big vision, he says “Underpinning that is going to be the product and tech side of things. You will have your product vision: “what are we trying to achieve for our customers through the product”. Then you have the engineering vision that underpins the product vision. It is complementary to the product vision, and it supports it. The engineering vision & strategy lines up to delivering the best outcomes for customers through the product vision.”

It is only once that big picture is in place that a business can start to work out how it is going to get there.

The right framework for transparency and function

Chris was particularly keen on Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs. “Objectives framework, such as OKRs, can be a really powerful tool in terms of getting that prioritization and alignment right. It’s great to make a clear and visible link between what software engineers and managers are doing on the ground and how that then ties back up to top-level objectives.”

What this brings to an organisation is transparency in goal setting. Everyone, from senior executives down to team members, is clear on how objectives are created and how what they do helps drive results.

Having that process is critical to determining what action is going to be taken. As another panellist, Nik Gupta, Software Development Manager at Amazon, highlighted, getting the basics right is critical. Nik and his team “spend about two months just getting our metrics right. Literally, just figuring out what are the right metrics we should track worldwide – are they instrumented, are they reliable, and how would we validate them, etc. It is absolutely essential to get that framework built before you start delving into ‘what projects are we going to do and why.’”

What that looks like is going to vary, and it can be easier for some functions than it is for others, as Smruti Patel, another panellist, highlighted. As Head of LEAP and Data Platform at Stripe, she has found that the former is easier to measure than the latter. For LEAP, “the metrics here are obviously more tangible. It’s easier to measure how much you’re spending on your infrastructure or how much time the customer sees when they make a request.” 

However, on the data infrastructure side “some of the inherent qualities or principles from the platform that the internal users require are security, reliability, availability, and leverage, in terms of product enablement, which then enables Stripe’s users. Here, identifying the right set of metrics for infrastructure kind of work has been a challenge.” 

To solve this, Smruti and her team were looking at leveraging learnings from LEAP and seeing how they could be applied to Data Platform. 

Prepare for change

However, while it is important to be clear on what you should measure, being too rigid once they’re defined is counterproductive. Panchadsaram pointed out that “OKRs were never meant to be these rigid rails, they were meant to be a tool for your teams to collectively commit to something.”

In a blog for O’Reilly.com, former Rent the Runway CTO Camille Fournier echoed this sentiment when she said “measurement needs to be focused on the right goals for right now, and you should expect that what you measure will change frequently as the state of systems and the business changes.”

That can only be achieved when metrics are aligned throughout the organisation.

Put simply, for metrics to be relevant in the current climate, they need to be aligned with a company vision which is then cascaded down the organisation. It is a process that needs to be rigorous in order to inform the work teams need to do, but it also needs to be flexible. At a time when the situation changes almost daily, it is the only way organisations operating with remote teams are going to develop metrics that are beneficial to the business.