Outputs To Outcomes: Why It’s Time To Stop Measuring Productivity
Initially used to measure the link between exploited resources and final results in the industrial production process, the concept of productivity is the most widely used economic indicator. It is also sorely out-of-date.
Two hundred and fifty years after the beginning of industrialization, a new revolution is on: the digital one. If the automation of almost all production has led workers to turn to knowledge-based jobs, the concept of productivity is still anchored in management culture. But it is time to question the relevance of an evaluation of intellectual work through the prism of productivity.
Let’s take the example of a writer able to write two mediocre books in the same amount of time they would need to write one very good book. Two books means twice as much output, so a higher productivity rate. But since one good book sells better, their publisher will likely prefer quality over quantity. In this case, applying a productionist approach would be counterproductive.
Better to satisfy a client than to time work
The same logic applies on the scale of services and the digital economy. A digital development agency working to improve an e-commerce app for one of its clients could decide to measure the team’s performances on the basis of purely quantitative parameters.
If the team is rewarded for the delivery speed and the number of modifications made on the program, it will be encouraged to deliver multiple minor features that do not improve the buying experience of the final user and do not make the product more attractive. The team could have invested in more long-term, in-depth creative work — riskier but more satisfying for the client.
Outcomes at the core of management thinking
If productivity has always been reliable to measure the results of the use of technological and financial resources, it has never been a good management tool to evaluate human impact. What measure should then be used instead ?
Health and happiness are necessary ingredients to produce quality work and carry out objectives
This question can be answered by moving from a model based on efficiency to another model, centered around efficacy, differentiating between the notion of outputs (immediately quantifiable results) and outcomes (bigger scale results that can be observed over time on the basis of predefined objectives).
For example: Instead of ordering five articles a month from a marketing manager, they should be asked to contribute to the increase of web traffic, no matter the number of articles published, and assess their work based on the result depending on this objective. One of the advantages of this approach lives in its capacity to stimulate creativity and innovation. If we impose short-term quantitative results instead of setting impactful strategic objectives in the long run, we significantly reduce creative possibilities.
It is important to establish with coworkers a relationship that puts the individual at the center
Looking back on the work done
This management method is a better fit for the new flexible and decentralized work mode. It allows the creation of fluid, adaptable processes, a more strategic management of resources, a responsibilization of collaborators that makes for transversal team dynamics.
In this context, measuring improvement means analyzing growth rates. Are there fewer service breakdowns over time ? Is the rate of new client acquisition staying stable or improving each year ? If these indicators improve, it means there is gradual progress. Quality-wise, it is recommended to plan retrospectives to reflect on the work done, learn lessons from it and apply them in the future.
Productionist approach does not work anymore
Health and happiness are not variables usually included in improving productivity, but they are necessary ingredients to produce quality work and carry out objectives. It is, for example, possible to use as indicators the analysis of the number of planned days off in comparison to the number of those unplanned, or the amount of overtime.
It is important to establish with coworkers a relationship that puts the individual at the center, rather than the project, because it is on this foundation that we will be able to build a work environment that favors quality. This paradigm should have been changed 20 years ago, at the dawn of the digital revolution, but it is not too late to make the change today.
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