By Heather Hurst | Senior Director of Corporate Communications at Workfront
There’s a famous business adage that says, “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” But only slightly less well known is this: “If you can’t see it, you can’t measure it.” (Also “never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line,” but that’s another story.)
In the world of modern knowledge work, where everything happens in the cloud, the output of our efforts is not always easily observable to the human eye. For many of us, there’s no tangible product that we can hold in our hands at the end of a project cycle. The collaboration happens digitally. The end product is digital. The evidence that we showed up to work and put in a full day’s effort—it’s all digital. And it’s often scattered across various platforms, from email and spreadsheets to task tracking apps and IM tools.
This kind of opacity seems to be a built-in feature of digital work. But it’s not. It’s just a byproduct of a fragmented approach to work management. If your work is partitioned across a half-dozen platforms, it’s not easy to get eyes on it. And if you can’t see it, you can’t measure it. And if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. This is where work performance indicators (WPIs) come into play.
5 Work Performance Indicators
Workfront CEO Alex Shootman likes to say that we no longer walk into work each day. Instead, we log into work. Back when project output was more tactile, we had the illusion of work visibility. We could see workers productively engaged in building widgets, going on sales calls, churning out paper memos and reports, and producing or reviewing mockups. Today, by contrast, almost all white-collar work looks the same from the outside: steering a mouse around while staring at a screen and typing on a keyboard. There’s not much to observe, physically. But because of the digital revolution, true visibility and transparency are more available to us than at any other time in history.
Modern work management technology allows us to connect teams in a centralized online space, collecting all communication and collaboration, all scheduling and budgeting details, all processes and protocols, and all related documents together. This includes the widget designs, sales data, reports, mockups, and other outputs that have always been used to measure workers’ productivity. Added bonus: work management tools can also automate busy work and provide intelligent insights, freeing everyone up for higher-value pursuits.
But visibility is only half the battle, albeit an important half. Once you have eyes on the data that will help you make decisions, plan projects, and allocate tasks effectively, you still need to know where to focus your efforts first.
In Alex’s book, Done Right: How Tomorrow’s Top Leaders Get Work Done, he argues that leaders at all organizational levels need to pull themselves “out of the engine room and up onto the bridge of the battleship.” How? By tracking five work performance indicators that will reveal almost anything you need to know about how to steer your team or organization.
Alex recommends a simple dashboard to help you subjectively evaluate where you’re already winning and where your team could use some work—in each of these five key areas that have traditionally been quite difficult to measure.
This WPI divides work activities into two categories: work that keeps things running vs. work that creates new opportunities for change and growth. A healthy organization has a good mix of the two, both aspirationally (in your goals/vision for your company) and in actuality (the way that vision plays out on the ground). Focus too much on running the organization at the expense of innovation, and your organization can languish and lose momentum. Focus too much on bold new initiatives at the expense of what’s already working for you, and you put company stability and longevity at risk. The right mix is going to be different from one company to another, and even for the same company across different points in its history.
To determine your organization’s mix, ask yourself: Does the proportion of work allocated to running your business vs. creating new opportunities match your goals for the business?
This WPI is a measure of the total capacity available and how much of that capacity you’re utilizing, helping you identify whether your organization can take on any more work—or not. As Alex points out, the overall manufacturing capacity and utilization for much of the last 50 years has averaged 80 percent. But separate studies by Workfront and McKinsey reveal that modern work utilization in the digital age is less than 40 percent.
To get a read on your organization’s capacity, ask yourself: Do you have adequate bandwidth and resources to make progress toward your goals?
For this work performance indicator, take a look at your total work cycle time—how long it takes to complete a piece of work—and how frequently work gets done on schedule. “To win in the modern world of work, you need to get your offer to market fast — and faster than anyone else,” Alex writes. “The Velocity WPI will help flag if work is taking too long. After all, in a modern work environment, speed kills.”
To gauge your organizational velocity, ask yourself: How frequently is work completed in the time originally committed?
Most organizations have traditional quality assurance systems in place, to measure the quality of the final output against an objective standard. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. This WPI measures the perception of work quality within the organization. It’s subjective, much like the bubble and star ratings popularized by TripAdvisor and Amazon. Ask your team to rate the degree to which the final product matches their original expectations. Track this metric over time, and you have some internally crowd-sourced proof points of quality.
To measure quality, find out: Are team members satisfied with the quality of the work they’re producing?
Alex firmly believes that people do their best work when they understand their role, believe their role matters, and are proud of the work they do. “The engine of modern work is a human being, and the fuel of that engine is motivation,” he writes. “You would never think of operating a vehicle without a gauge to tell you when fuel is running low.” And that’s where the engagement WPI comes in.
To track engagement within your team on an ongoing basis, ask three questions:
- Did you understand what was expected of you?
- Did the work you were assigned make a difference to the organization?
- Did you do great work?
You may have noticed that cost and expenditures didn’t make Alex’s WPI list, and there’s a reason for that. Financial metrics like these are core components of everything else your business measures already. The purpose of work performance indicators is to provide a framework for tracking progress in areas that have been traditionally difficult to quantify and measure by traditional means. “Many a fool has broken their pick on trying to execute enterprise-wide activity-based costing,” Alex says. “Ideally, cost data should always be integrated into modern work management systems. But be careful about the impact of this data on decision-making. It tends to give poor results and requires multiple manipulations to get an answer.”
“Our five WPIs are most valuable when combined,” Alex writes. “You will gain the greatest insights from how the WPIs trend and the picture they paint if assessed together.” In his book, he provides a handy worksheet that puts these concepts into practice, available as a standalone download here. As you work through the brief exercise, you’ll end up with a concise statement of opportunity that you can use to make any executive’s jaw drop. It might sound a little something like this:
“Our two greatest opportunities to improve the way we work are in the areas of velocity and engagement. These improvements will have the following impact on the organization…”
This will demonstrate that you’ve gone far beyond simply achieving work visibility. You’ve also figured out what to do with it. Now, have fun storming the castle!
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