Once the fear of truly measuring what matters subsides, the actual process centers on 3 basic steps. And they work in any situation.

While it only takes 3 steps and is easy to understand, the process of measuring what matters  is deceptively hard to operationalize.

Measuring what matters is a process that requires the experiences and perspectives of different people. By bringing the right people together and seeking to avoid politics (at least the politics of selection), the result is more effective.

Precision and common understanding of terms and effective communication are essential for this process to work. Using words with different meanings or failing to clarify — including context — sets the stage for confusion and failure.

When I guide clients through the process, it normally takes 3-5 weeks (and a few iterations) to get all the pieces right. Each situation is different, but plan to spend more time than expected.

This takes at least twice as long as you think. Maybe longer the first few times through.

1. Define the problem

The first step is to clearly and accurately address the purpose. What are you trying to do, and why?

To get started, ask simply, “What is the problem we are trying to solve?” And then let it hang.

What seems like the obvious answer is not always accurate. Probe a bit deeper, simply by asking, “Why?” Perhaps a few times.

This step is skipped too often. This is a situation assessment.

Understanding the true, often hidden, problem allows us to set the baseline. Engaging in a discovery and diagnosis surfaces important insights and helps set the pathway to resolution. The nuance and experience of exploring the challenge and likely pathway is crucial to capturing the right measurements.

Clarity is essential here.

A common barrier to success at this stage is the driving desire to do “something, anything” as quickly as possible. To rapidly develop a dashboard or other visual reporting tool in an effort to justify a program. But when asked to define what problem it solves, the answer is usually a shrug of the shoulders and the proclamation that “something is better than nothing!”

That’s not generally true. The wrong something has a tendency to create more work in the future.

To measure what matters, first seek to truly understand the challenge. The success of the measurement program depends on that clear and mutual understanding.

2. Establish outcomes

The process of establishing outcomes defines success. Simply stated, it captures and details for others the result of the solution; the expected change in the condition of organization.

This answers the question, “How will we — and others — know we are successful?” Established outcomes need to be clear, consistent, and mutually understood by everyone involved.

Measure against outcomes to demonstrate success. The 3 essential elements to measure what matters ensure the trend reveals what is working, what needs to be changed, and documents when the effort is successful.

When focused on managing risk and reducing intolerable events, it’s important to remember to capture the “when it works right.”

Even with clearly defined and understood problems, it takes time to work with stakeholders to establish outcomes. It  requires translating complexity into understanding. Invest the time to document what the result looks and feels like. Focus on describing how the behaviors of individuals are expected to change.

3. Measure behavior matched to outcomes

Consider the actions people take now. How are they evidenced? What actions are people expected to take in the future? How are they different? How are those new behaviors demonstrated? What (and how many) steps exist between the current state and the desired outcome?

The key to measuring what matters is to focus on capturing and demonstrating the evidence of behavior. Place emphasis on what people do over what they say.

For example, asking people if they intend to change their passwords after a session on building better passwords usually results in an overwhelmingly positive response. When faced with the question, most give what they feel is not only the right answer, but what seems to make sense in the moment. It doesn’t, however, represent a change in behavior.

The better approach is to measure how many people actually change their password. I also like to test the strength of the new passwords, monitor password resets, and look for evidence of changes in other places, too (to the extent possible).

By adopting an evidence-based approach, we can capture and consider the behavior of different groups, at different times. Those insights and the trend they form help to guide the programs to solve the problem and reach the established outcomes.

The key is to keep it simple, focused.

Simple is generally more powerful, but it often takes a bit more time to distill and process. Make the time in the beginning to seek out the right behaviors and outcomes that allow everyone involved to see the changes.

This is where training helps. Normally, this is wrapped inside discussions and agreement on value. Ultimately, the measurements of value need to be communicated effectively. But that’s another series.

Make the commitment to measure what matters

These three steps work in any environment and any situation. The questions are easy to understand, and even easy to ask. The challenge sets in when the right people are together and it’s time to document the answers in a way that everyone understands.

The trick is to avoid rushing, while driving to successful conclusion in a reasonable period of time.

Training and outside help eases the process and reduces mistakes. But like anything, the key is to get started. Make the commitment to measure what matters, to focus on challenges, outcomes, and changes in behavior.

Work from a consistent, open framework and keep doing it. This is the pathway to success.

You can do it. I’m here to help. Share successes, frustrations, and ask questions in the comments or by dropping me a note.

About the Author Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.

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