From Productivity to Performance

Shifting how we measure success

Productivity’s days are numbered. This may seem like an odd sentiment, since even a cursory online search turns up page after page of productivity secrets. There are gurus, methods, systems, products, tips, and hacks galore. Great time management is important, as our friends at Productivityist will attest. Yet, productivity culture as it exists on the internet obscures commonsense truths that any workplace leader can see; doing more things is not always better, and doing more of the wrong things may be worse than doing nothing.

When most people talk about productivity in organizations, they are referring to a concept that really had its heyday during the 1920s-40s. The relatively-young science of management theory was focused on physical throughput—the ability of an organization to push products down an assembly line.

Aside from the fact that this no longer describes the work that many people do, it also has significant drawbacks. Most business definitions of productivity don’t include a full range of performance metrics. If you’re not looking at the right problems, you probably won’t find the right solutions.

What you measure is what you change. For example, when we talk about the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of an economy, we convey very little about the health, satisfaction, and diversity of its workforce. If we talk about the productivity of resource extraction, we obscure future environmental costs—a significant business risk. If a team is building software, just measuring quantity of code can incentivize sloppy work or generate errors. Every metric must be carefully considered, as people tend to adjust their behavior to perform to the metric.

A system put in place to collect information can also distort the results. Adobe cited this as one of the many reasons they decided to eliminate traditional performance reviews. For another example from the world of software development, see Microsoft’s experience with bell-curve-based stack ranking, which a prominent article identified as the cause of a “lost decade” at the company. In both of these cases, the information leadership wanted—feedback on the progress of individuals toward company objectives—was unnecessarily freighted with financial and career consequences. In hindsight, these systems seem obviously flawed, but at the time they probably made sense. Live and learn!

If we start from the premise that 20th-century measurement may not be suited to 21st-century business needs, then what? Ever since people started using feet to measure…feet, the utility of simple and universally-understood measurements has been clear. Organizations still need sound methodologies for planning and delivering their products and services, remaining accountable to investors, and managing their people.

The new standard for business metrics is performance. How is the business performing relative to what’s needed, and what’s possible? How are the different parts of the business—individuals, teams, equipment, facilities—functioning together? Is the organization providing resources and leadership to help people integrate work and life in a positive way? These may seem, on the surface, like difficult things to measure. However, the problem is the culture of measurement, not the ability to quantify. The B Corporation Certification succeeds in measuring characteristics of businesses that may have seemed uncountable, like transparency, inclusion, and community involvement.

Begin by tossing out assumptions about what can and can’t be measured. One of our favorite books, How to Measure Anything by Douglas W. Hubbard, demonstrates how anything of importance can be measured in straightforward ways. Attempts to measure things can often be stymied by a desire for precision that isn’t actually needed. More precision increases certainty, but also increases the costs of that measurement—so much so that we default to doing nothing. With a little creativity and less effort than you might think, it’s possible to add more rigor to decisions or at least provide useful additional data to complement measurement methods the organization has already developed.

Beyond day-to-day decisions, the tendency to rely on easy measurement methods also manifests itself in shortsighted conversations about workplace design. When a company frames its approach to space in terms of productivity, it can be prone to taking actions that actually hurt performance. For example, a company may decide to jettison some real estate that is no longer being utilized. This frame limits the possibility of improving and repurposing the space for better performance.

It’s a virtual certainty that there are things that could have positive or negative impact on your organization’s performance, but aren’t yet being measured. Devising metrics that are actually useful—and that take a more holistic view of the workplace experience—is one of the challenges facing the forward-thinking business leader. People expect their environments to be built with individual and team performance in mind, giving them all the tools they need to do their jobs.

Since the founding of PLASTARC, we’ve been passionate about the ways to measure design. That means acknowledging the many aspects of the experience of space and architecture, and getting the balance right between quantity and quality of measurement.

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