Why Focusing on KPIs Too Much Can Backfire

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Bureaucrats love their key performance indicators (KPIs) – metrics that presumably allow them to gauge the health of various business activities. And to be fair, they can be quite valuable as part of an overall strategy that prioritizes data analytics and data-driven decision-making.

But listen. There’s a big problem with glorifying KPIs — or at least relying on them too much. And too many companies today are falling into this trap.

The “right way” to see KPIs

Okay, let’s be reasonable here. KPIs can be useful — and powerful for guiding an organization’s direction. When used properly, KPIs are objective, easy to interpret and measured with specific intent. These are truly reliable data points that can be used to empower decision-making.

However, even in this hypothetical perfect scenario, it’s important for organizational leaders to use these metrics properly. You should never use a single metric to fuel your decision-making, and you shouldn’t use metrics alone to guide all of your visions for the future of the company.

You can think of KPIs as being different types of food in a well-balanced diet, or as different assets with different strengths and weaknesses as part of your overall investment portfolio. They’re incredibly useful, but they’re only a portion of your strength in organizational decision-making.

Related: How Key Performance Indicators Can Actually Kill Key Performance

The KPI monsters we’ve created

Why have we deviated from this vision? There are a few explanations worth exploring. Personally, I think it’s mostly about disproportionate evaluation. Collectively, we’ve come to see KPIs as being more powerful and informative than they actually are. That’s not to say that they’re not powerful or not informative; this is merely an assertion that we’ve overestimated and misinterpreted them. Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways this manifests.

An exercise in vanity

Vanity metrics are a prime example of how KPIs can be misused and misinterpreted. Put simply, vanity metrics are metrics that make you feel good about a specific outcome or strategy, without really providing information on how things are running.

For example, follower count is a commonly tracked vanity metric in social media marketing. It does have some value, and it certainly feels good to see your follower count increase. But your number of followers has little to do with more measurably impactful things like follower engagement, brand awareness, conversions or revenue generated.

Ambiguous meanings

Sometimes KPIs carry ambiguous meanings. Let’s take a commonly used one in the customer service and customer experience world: net promoter score (NPS). Hypothetically, NPS helps you estimate consumer sentiment, and you measure it by asking people how likely they are to recommend your business to others. But sometimes, these answers have little to do with consumer sentiment. It’s nice to know that some of your customers would hypothetically recommend your business to others, but why would they do this? What’s driving them? And how likely are they to follow through on this?

There are tough complexities to work out with almost any KPI; attempting to boil down large, complex topics into a single measurement is an exercise in futility.

Misleading data

You can use data to support just about any argument you want. For example, let’s say we’re using data to compare the effectiveness of different marketing strategies. There is one strategy that’s very challenging to pull off, but if you use it successfully, it’s incredibly powerful. If you want to make the argument that you should use this strategy, you can cherry-pick the best case studies and prove how powerful it can be. If you want to make the argument that you should not use this strategy, you can take a measurement of the average results and show that typically, this strategy isn’t worth using.

In this way, data points can sometimes become crude tools with which we simply assert our previously formed opinions. In their best applications, KPIs should challenge us and force us to think critically.

The almighty incremental change

Embedded growth obligations (EGOs) drive countless companies forward, forcing them to grow, grow, grow. And on a smaller scale, organizations are sometimes held back by a focus on incremental change, shackled by the KPIs that guide them.

Once you identify that a KPI is important, the organization becomes incentivized to keep pushing that KPI higher. The goal is usually to see a change of at least a few percentage points after each predefined time period. Obviously, incremental growth is a net positive in most cases, but sometimes, it’s better to take a short-term KPI loss in pursuit of a more fundamental, disruptive change that leads to better long-term results.

In other words, obsession over incremental changes can limit the true potential of organizational development.

Lack of actionability

One final problem to note about KPIs is that they sometimes lack actionability, or a “so what” factor. It’s great that your organization is seeing higher CSAT, but what does that mean for the organization, how should it change your decision-making, and where do you go from here?

None of this is meant to suggest that you should stop tracking KPIs or using them as part of your approach to organizational decision-making. But we need to get real about our obsessiveness and misuse of these sometimes-trivial and sometimes misleading data points.

Let’s be better data analysts.

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