On being ... a measurable outcome

By Ingrid Sapona

At a recent lunch meeting, a client was expressing her frustration because she had been tasked with coming up with a way to measure success on a project that we were working on. I did not envy her having to do this. Her frustration became mine when she explained that whether there’s more work for me will depend on whether the next phase gets funded – and that will depend on whether she can come up with such measures.

Since the work was ultimately going to be put up on a website, we considered the usual things like page views and clicks. While such statistics have the appeal of being objective, they don’t tell you anything about whether people find the information useful, or even if they’re using it for the purpose we intended.

The other day the client called to tell me the good news: the next phase got funded. Whew… We then proceeded to discuss the next things she wanted me to work on. I don’t know what she ended up proposing in terms of measurable outcomes, but as we discussed the next phase, we agreed that as we move forward we had better give some thought to what we’ll use as measures of success.

The need for measurable outcomes is all the rage in the business world. For the most part, I understand the point of considering these things in a business context. After all, if you’re manufacturing nails and you’re making a profit of $1 per 100 nails and you produce 10,000 nails/day, that may seem pretty good – until you realize that if you re-tool to make screws, you could make a profit of $1 per 50 screws and you can still produce 10,000/day. Or, if you’re a sales person and you make seven sales worth $X, you can say your efforts contributed $Y to the bottom line. But, even in business, there are things that might be subject to some objective measurement, but whose true value is subjective. Indeed, for most of my work the most meaningful measure of success is subjective: does my client like what I’ve done for them?

Over the weekend friends and I were getting together for a pot luck barbecue and I decided I’d try a new appetizer recipe. It was something I’d seen on a cooking show that I love. The ingredients were straightforward and tasty, but it was a bit complicated, as many of this chef’s recipes are. One of the things that appealed to me about the recipe is that the end result is individual servings for each person, as opposed to a bowl or platter that gets passed around.

Because the recipe involved a number of steps, you could make the components in advance and assemble it the day of, though once it was altogether, it still needed to chill a few hours before serving. I had anticipated that assembly would be the fussiest part, and I was right. Because I had seen the chef’s end product, I knew what it was “supposed” to look like and as I worked, I had my doubts. As I painstakingly layered the ingredients into each ramekin, I wondered whether the end result would be worth it.

That afternoon I was talking to my sister and I told her I had spent much of the morning making the appetizer. I also mentioned that I doubted I’d be making that recipe again because it was a heck of a lot of work. My sister thought I was crazy to try something new, especially if it was complicated. I explained that I wasn’t worried about whether it would taste good – I knew it would be delicious because the ingredients were all yummy. (I do a lot of baking and I’ve come to realize that it’s pretty hard to ruin something whose main ingredients are butter and sugar – I mean, really. I was confident the same rule would apply here.) No, my concern – as it is with most desserts I make – was whether (when they came out of the ramekins) they would look anything like the picture in the recipe!

Well, that evening, as my friends slaved over the barbecue, I slipped into the kitchen to plate the appetizers. To my delight, they looked fantastic. My immediate reaction was “well, I guess they were worth the effort!” My view was confirmed as my friends ooh’d and ahh’d even before they tasted them. (They were even more impressed when they tried them and found they tasted as good as they looked!)

The next day I input the recipe in my computer, which is how I keep track of recipes I like and would make again. And, as I added a note to the recipe to the effect that it was well worth the effort – in terms of taste AND presentation – I thought of my client’s need to come up with a measure of success. I laughed as I realized I had subconsciously applied a measure of success to the appetizer recipe. Indeed, though my “was it worth the effort” test is clearly subjective, it is something that I apply to lots of things …

© 2014 Ingrid Sapona


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