Founder Diary

February 21, 2023

The problem with productivity numbers

The problem with productivity numbers

What isn’t measured can’t be improved? Bullshit.

A confused hamster surrounded by tools flying around. The tools are a ruler, an alarm clock, and a stopwatch.
A confused hamster surrounded by tools flying around. The tools are a ruler, an alarm clock, and a stopwatch.
A confused hamster surrounded by tools flying around. The tools are a ruler, an alarm clock, and a stopwatch.
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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Hey 👋,

We all love numbers that tell simple stories — the kind that make takeaways simpler than real life.

“Revenue grew 12% in Q3, but earnings plunged 58%. Raw material and labor costs shot up, so profitability went down.”

We understand that, and now we expect this deceptive simplicity everywhere we go.

Which is why some version of these inevitably comes up:

“What isn’t measured isn’t managed”

“What isn’t measured doesn’t change”

“What isn’t measured can’t be improved”

Ever since Frederick Taylor came up with “scientific management” in the early 1900s, the urge to turn any kind of performance into numbers has been irresistible.

Do this 37% faster. Solve that in half the time. Lasts 2x longer than a competitor. Makes grass 3x greener. And, of course, 10x your productivity.

Businesses are perfectly aware of your weakness for numbers. Numbers create credibility like nothing else can. So, businesses do their best to come up with numbers that sell. Often, this means any number. No matter if they’re real or made up.

My rule of thumb is simple: the rounder the number, especially one expressed with an “x” at the end, the likelier it is that the stats aren’t real.

But the thing is, creative and other non-factory work elude quantification. Effort doesn’t translate into results linearly. Often, they’re not predictable at all.

Let’s say you’re a small business owner. Examples might look like this:

  • A customer complains about no sharing functionality. You spend an hour investigating options. What if you decide sharing doesn’t make sense after all?

  • A micro influencer reaches out and says she’d love to feature you in her newsletter, if you reciprocate. You read through two months’ worth of her content. Could be legit. Or it could flop.

  • A freelance designer you work with says she’s raising her rates by 35%. Are you happy with her work that much? How do you know how much of your engagement growth is due to her graphics? How do you compare her to other freelancers?

  • You’re building an app. After a year of blood and tears, your earnings are still exactly $0 (Now, where would this example come from?😄). Are you productive at all? Or, as Erica Schneider put it, if you’re not winning, are you even a bro, bro?

So, what’s the alternative?

Productivity = activity?!

In the examples above, you can’t measure output. The activities aren’t immediately productive. They may or may not translate into more revenue, but they’re still work.

The difficulty to pin this down is why businesses and managers today are so tempted to equate productivity and activity, and call it a day.

As a result, we’re pushed toward quantifiable activity. Stay busy and you’ll be fine. If you click the mouse, press the keys, and screenshots show you aren’t on YouTube, you’re in the clear.

But are you?

Activity is an exceptionally bad proxy for productivity, let alone results.

Busyness isn’t business.

If you’re still trying to closely supervise your team of knowledge workers with century-old techniques, you’re wasting your time, their potential and trust.

Some of the best breakthroughs come from things that don’t scale (e.g., customer interviews), or can only be partially measured with a huge lag (e.g., long-term revenue impact).

The time to measure anything and everything is long gone.

Get over it.

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