I write a lot about understanding why you’re doing something as a means of helping you to decide what to do and how to do it. It’s an idea I’ve stolen from Simon Sinek who wrote a whole book about it in fact. His book was general and strategic but I also apply it to the tactical and transactional world of measures because that’s where the concept often hits the ground and plays into your practice. In fact, I’ve written a lot about Goodhart’s Law, that when a metric becomes a goal it ceases to be a good measure. I’d like to share an example of that and why it’s so important to understand the basis behind why you’re looking to measure something in the first place.
A good friend of mine and fellow CX leader told me recently the story about an organization he was working with. It was a big group with a wide variety of Customer types and personas. As such he was often discussing how different approaches to the gathering of VoC data were important and necessary. So far so good. But when he approached one of the groups he was presented with a curious request: Could they change their survey to using ‘smiley-faces’ instead of numbers?
The typical survey uses a range of discreet numbers as choices for the participants when answering the questions: How satisfied were you with your most recent interaction, from 1 to 5, with 1 being not satisfied at all to 5 being completely satisfied. Etc.
Well, someone had done a study that suggested people respond more positively (i.e., rate their experiences higher) when they are presented instead with cartoon pictures of smiley faces. They felt they could improve their scores considerably simply by switching to this visual format instead of the numerical values. My friend was dumbfounded but not altogether shocked. He knew well Goodhart’s Law and had worked with this organization a long time. Unfortunately the leadership of this company had a bit of a reputation for being tyrannical about showing progress with the metrics they were using.
While it’s heartening to see a company using numerical reasoning and factual calculations when it comes to driving their business decisions, the opposite was actually happening here: They were in fact trying to cook the books in order to keep the bosses happy. But my friend handled it wisely. He asked them if they would gain any deeper insights into what they could do differently to improve their performance as a result of reformatting their survey. When they couldn’t come up with anything he sent them back to the drawing board with the instruction that he’d be happy to get behind any change to the survey if it were driven by a desire (and showed some promise) to gain more insights and leverage them to actually better please their Customers. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to change the survey (although that’d have been a cost), it’s that the change shouldn’t have been simply to improve how they looked to be doing. That’s not the purpose of a survey in the first place.
Unfortunately this is what happens when leadership determines and publishes goals without context or a reasoning for why the goal is where it should be and what it would mean to hit it. When the whole conversation about goals is one-directional, top-down and doesn’t provide a vision of why the goal is important and what hitting it would represent, it’s incentive to simply hit it at any cost. On the other hand, if a goal is contextualized and explained, every step between where you are and where you need to get can be appreciated and successes celebrated when met. Even slower-than-expected starts or slipping back from time to time are easier to handle and fix if a team is united in why the goal is important rather than simply that it’s the target.