choose good, not evil

Got problems? Of course you do. And, chances are, you’re looking to data to help you figure out how to solve them. Data can be a very useful asset. But, using data without some guiding principles can be extremely harmful in ways that you may not expect. Here are three tips to help you use metrics for good, not evil.

Don’t use data as a weapon

If you’re in management, stop trying to multi-task and focus for the rest of the paragraph. Data is information, not a weapon. Shaming people with data rarely achieves the desired outcome. Shaming leads to gaming and you’ll be even farther away from solving your original problem… and you’ll have a few more at that. Eli Goldratt said it best when  he said “Tell me how I’m going to be measured and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave. If you measure me in an illogical way… do not complain about illogical behavior.”

Know what you want to fix and gather only the data you need to fix it

In corporate America, we spend tremendous amounts of time and money gathering and maintaining massive quantities of data, most of which we don’t use or don’t need to use. We then complain that we don’t have time and money to achieve key goals. Before you gather data, know why you need it and how you’re going to use it. What problem are you trying to solve? Do you think this data will help you solve that? If you don’t know the answer to the first question, you’re not ready to look at data yet. If you aren’t sure about the latter, don’t invest significant time or money until you are. Sometimes, people think the data tells them something it doesn’t, which leads me to my next point…

Understand what the data tells you and, more importantly, what it doesn’t

Data can be interpreted in many ways. For instance, you might think that a report showing you how many lines of code each developer wrote will give you insights into their productivity. Wrong. Good developers often write shorter code and consolidate existing code, and therefore have low numbers on a lines of code report. Get the point? If you think you have the right data, question yourself. Play devil’s advocate. Ask yourself what you might be tempted to do to game the metric if you were measured by it to see if it might cause more harm than good.