“How do you measure the success of your program?”

“Oh, I don’t,” he responded.

“If you don’t measure the program, then how do you know if it is working?” I asked.

“Michael, if I measured the program — which is too hard to do anyway — then my boss might find out how I’m doing. I don’t want that.”

I sat in stunned silence for a moment. Then I asked how he got funding for his efforts, built his staff, and was evaluated for pay raises and the such.

He chuckled.

He explained that his approach is quite simple. A few weeks before budget requests and evaluations, he schedules a presentation to a group of influential people in the organization. He shares stories, provides them insights, and makes sure everyone has a good time.

Then he asks a few of the folks to drop in on his boss and let him know how much they enjoyed the presentation. Sometimes they add a bit about hoping he gets the budget to do more. Other times they just focus on the great job he’s doing.

In a rare event, I was speechless for a second time in the same conversation.

He had a good deal going, was content not knowing how he was doing. Comfortable with the status quo and without desire to improve, there was nothing I could say to convince him to change.

He was afraid to measure what mattered. He’s not alone.

The fear of measuring what matters

At the simplest level, measuring results requires a basic understanding of the starting point, the expected outcome, and the ability to describe what the outcome looks like.

Measuring is a challenge when focusing on security, changing behaviors, demonstrating value, or effective communication. Measuring what matters takes more thought and sometimes a bit more effort.

It means getting over the fear.

Most of us operate in environments that demand (or claim to demand) not just rapid results, but INSTANT results. It seems easier to promote generalizations than to risk measuring and coming up short.

Measurement is not just a function for reporting

These demands and risks create a limiting perception that measurement is primarily for reporting. Done right it’s much more.

By determining what and how to measure progress — if only our own — we have the capacity to learn. It sets the stage for improvement.

Last week I presented the closing keynote for the CIO/CISO Summit in Charlotte. As part of my preparation and throughout the conference, I talked with nearly a dozen people about how they justify and measure various efforts.

Most work through at least an informal justification process (a future topic). But when it comes to measurement, most admitted they don’t measure. More, no one went back to measure and review the outcome to see if it matched the promise during the justification “process.”

When probed why, the common answer was, “I don’t know. We should probably do that.”

The answer, again, is fear.

When we work through informal justification processes with a loosely defined vision of “success” and no clear way to measure, it’s scary to measure the results.

What if we were wrong?

In nearly two decades of focusing on measuring the results, I’ve found that the ability to come back with evidence only leads to great discussions. More than a few times it also led to added responsibilities and promotions.

Introducing measurements changes the conversation from generalizations to specifics. Better, showing the power of measuring what matters takes away some of the drive for instant results in favor of meaningful change.

The situation moves from abstract to concrete. Measuring what matters provides the context to consider the effort and realize the significance of the effort.

The only wrong outcome is not measuring (or perhaps not planning and justifying) in the first place. We have to get over the fear and start measuring what matters.

Make the decision to measure

Start with a conscious decision to consider the effort, define success, and then measure it. Whatever way you can. I’ll share the three basic steps to measure what matters in a future post.

Measuring what matters is, like effective communication, a blend of art and science. It’s also a habit. Forge the discipline to make measurement a priority.

When we measure what matters, we can assess and adapt our programs to reach success. It allows us to demonstrate progress. More specifically, we can capture what works and learn where we have the opportunity to make changes. It sets the stage to improve with consistency.

Measuring what matters doesn’t make you weak. It makes you strong. What are you waiting for?

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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