Skin in the game: Measure your success by results, not by activities

If the objectives and tactics in our plan are tied to strategy, we have made it partway. Now we need to track progress. Despite our best efforts, this is where drafting a plan for Operations can fall down. In the past, I have counted each completed project as a success, and the tally of projects completed as our metric – and this was a mistake.

If Operations completes all of its planned tasks and Advancement doesn’t improve, are we successful? – No.

Our initiatives may be grounded in strategy, but that does not mean that delivering the initiatives is the same as delivering results. When we focus on activities and deliverables, we forget that these initiatives are supposed to show benefits and impact. We forget the “why”.

The activities – the things we want to do – are outputs. Success isn’t about outputs; it’s about outcomes.

Instead, for each of our objectives we can try asking two questions, and base our metrics on the answers:

  1. Who is the user/consumer of our work?
  2. What behavioural changes would we expect to see?

Let’s say one of our priority projects is to improve pipeline management processes in the CRM, under an overall objective of improving frontline user adoption. The measure of success should not be a checkmark, “done!”. We need to identify who we’re targeting (fundraisers and other frontline staff), and what we want them to do (use CRM more often and more effectively). Then we must quantitatively measure that behaviour to the extent that we can (logins, records created or touched, movement of prospects and proposals, user satisfaction), against a baseline.

This sounds sensible, but it runs against a strong impulse to set only goals we can control. We know we can deliver an improvement to the process, but we shy away from defining success as improved fundraiser adoption. Why? Because we control our own activities, but we don’t control fundraiser behaviour.

Similarly, we can improve the online giving experience, but we resist defining success as increased giving. Because we don’t control donor behaviour.

And yet, these are exactly the outcomes we need to track. After all, the front line measures success by results, not activity – so why should it be any different for Operations?

Goals should be aligned not only from top to bottom, but across the organization. That means your planning process should not only emphasize clear ties to overall strategy, it should reflect interdependencies among teams. Each unit in Advancement has different activities but works towards shared results. In order to achieve alignment, our goals must be part of an ongoing conversation with other units. And we must check in and share stories of progress.

It seems clear to me that measurement must continue long after the project is complete. Delivering on a project isn’t necessarily going to show up in our measurable outcomes right away. An initiative that aims to improve user adoption of the CRM can take months to bring about an effect. This is OK – the reason we continue to measure even when the project is complete is in order to learn. If the key result hasn’t improved, then we have to ask WHY. What we learn will carry us into the next iteration of planning.

This approach to success metrics has been suggested to me by the concept of OKRs, which stands for Objectives and Key Results. In this scheme, which has its origins at Google and other tech companies, an Objective is a qualitative description of what we want to achieve and Key Results are quantitative metrics we will use to measure our progress toward the Objective. There are two to five Key Results per Objective; having more than one Key Result allows us to counterbalance the influence of any single metric holding too much sway. For example, we may have an objective to delight our donors – but not at any cost.

The distinction between “OKR” and the more familiar “KPI” seems so subtle that I’m not sure we need a new acronym. What we need is to ask the right questions of our objectives – which will lead us to the right metrics.

(If you’d like to learn more about OKRs, however, I encourage you to search for the work of Felipe Castro, and this article from Harvard Business Review: “Use OKRs to Set Goals for Teams, Not Individuals,” by Jeff Gothelf, 17 Dec 2020.)