Change is perhaps the only constant we can count on. The rapid development of technology and automation are just a few of the factors disrupting industries, shifting markets, and revealing the difference between relevance and redundancy. Organizational agility—the ability to respond to changes and challenges effectively—is critical for long term success. This presents a unique challenge for consultants—we know that agility is crucial, but it can be difficult to measure. How do you know that your offerings are influencing organizational agility, if your clients are focused on lagging indicators of change? Your approach to measuring agility must also be responsive and agile—focused on the metrics that matter, and taking into account the ways that the organization is changing and adapting to meet the challenges of a rapidly shifting landscape.

PMI research shows that organizations with a high degree of agility enjoy some profound benefits—greater agility leads to better performance, giving organizations a powerful edge on the competition.

As your clients grapple with the challenges of rapid change, your offerings need to be flexible enough to adapt to shifts, and supported by demonstrable results. Honing in on one or two metrics that your client would like to improve will help you develop a program that can meet their needs. Unfortunately, too often, organizations rely on historical data—the success or failure of things they’ve previously done. Or worse, they wait for annual survey results, or other lagging indicators of performance and organizational health.

In a rapidly shifting environment, how can you be sure that your offerings are improving the metrics that matter?

Focus on Leading, Not Lagging, Indicators

One way to be clear about priorities during change is to focus on leading indicators over lagging indicators, and to concentrate on the metrics that influence the success of the business right now. Agility can be difficult to measure—organizations will know if they have it (or if they don’t), when they’re in in the thick of a fast-moving project, but by then it’s too late to do much about it, especially if they are looking to lagging indicators of organizational health.

Take employee engagement as an example—many organizations rely on annual surveys or turn-over rates to measure employee engagement. These measures are insufficient—if your clients are waiting for the end of year turnover data, they won’t have much information to work from in March. And when a big new initiative gets launched in June, they’ll need engaged, agile team members for a successful project.

Instead, look for metrics that give a sense of what is happening right now—customer response times, buy-in for new initiatives, willingness to stay a few minutes late to wrap important projects, etc. If your clients are waiting for the lagging indicators to be retrieved and analyzed, they may be missing out on their chance to reap the rewards of an engaged workforce, or worse, are at risk of losing star performers who feel that their input is only valued once a year.

Furthermore, if your clients are relying on lagging indicators to measure performance, it will be harder to measure the value of your service offering. If you’ve been hired to help increase employee engagement, and are waiting for a year-end survey, you could be waiting a long time for data about the value of your input. Focusing on the leading indicators will help you demonstrate ROI for your services in the moment, or course correct and improve before it’s too late.

Value Clarity Metrics Over Vanity Metrics

Another tactic to help your clients identify the metrics that matter, is to differentiate between vanity metrics and clarity metrics. As noted in First Round Review:

Vanity metrics are surface-level metrics. They’re often large measures, like number of downloads, that impress others. Use them to initiate partnerships and gain a following.

Clarity metrics are operational metrics, like the number of minutes a day your product actually gets used or how long it took for a user to get service. These are the hidden gears that drive growth. Use them to solidify your competitive advantage.

A vanity metric may be acquired new users for a product or service—data that looks good in a deck for shareholders or potential investors. A clarity metric may then be the average time new customers spend actually using the product—not as slick in a presentation, but far more indicative of actual customer satisfaction, and by extension, a much better indicator of longevity. For example, if you want to measure engagement with content on your website, look at the length of time people are spending on each page—100 users who spend fewer than 10 seconds on your site will be less valuable than 10 users who spend 5 minutes or more reading your content.

A recent episode of the StartUp podcast provides an excellent example of vanity metrics vs. clarity metrics. While Friendster was focused on the number of new users of their site (with little regard for site speed or user satisfaction), Facebook was focused on sustainable growth and user experience. By the time Friendster realized the bulk of their new users were coming from the Philippines (eroding their value to big advertisers), Facebook had honed in on a clarity metric that allowed them to create an exceptional user experience—they knew that people who made seven connections in their first ten days on the site would be hooked. They also controlled user experience by entering new markets cautiously. If you’d looked at the vanity metric of new users at the time, you probably would have bet on Friendster as the dominant social networking site. But of course, we know how that worked out.

Vanity metrics may make people feel good in the moment, but those warm fuzzy feelings won’t last long if we discover that a competitor has taken a bite out of our market share, that a large user base is spreading their frustration with the service all over Twitter, or that the expensive advertising campaign was seen by a lot of people who didn’t buy the product. Honing in on clarity metrics will allow you and your clients to course correct in the moment, and develop the agility required for success.  

Clarity metrics can help your clients ensure that they are on the right track, and can help you focus your offerings on the outcomes that will have the biggest impact. You may need to spend some time digging into the issues that your clients are facing—and push them to think beyond vanity metrics or lagging indicators when they discuss their challenges.

Make Sure The Work And Measures Deliver Meaningful Outcomes

Focusing on leading indicators and clarity metrics with your clients may also require some agility on your part in the offerings you provide. If you’re relying on “deliver and disappear” training programs, or content-based learning initiatives that don’t take the context of the organization into account, moving the needle on measures that impact outcomes that matter to your clients will be difficult.

The rapid pace of change that organizations are facing means that there are no one-size fits all solutions. As the role of L&D evolves to meet these challenges, so too must consultants and coaches evolve their offerings. Seek out opportunities to move away from static, content based solutions, and leverage the metrics tracked in analyzing your work to elevate your role as a powerful strategic partner to your clients. As you hone your strategy and analytic skills, you may need to take some time to educate your clients along the way.

Just as you push your clients to think beyond lagging indicators and vanity metrics, you must also be finding the metrics that matter for your business. Smile sheets or participant satisfaction surveys are insufficient to demonstrate your value. Instead, focus on behavior change, improved business outcomes, referrals, or other metrics that demonstrate the tangible value you bring to your client organizations. Don’t wait for the lagging data, and don’t pat yourself on the back for a high satisfaction rate with your clients. Instead, focus on improving the metrics that matter. In an age of increasing pace and the need for greater agility, improving outcomes and how they’re measured are going to be clear differentiators in the consulting marketplace.


Metrics that Matter