This page is a work in progress, part of a multi-year effort to capture and share learnings, frameworks, tools, and processes to run organizations. See Running Organizations for more.

Measuring Success

Why Measurement Matters

Measurement helps you to understand what's happening in a business operation and to make sense of performance. Measurement is the key to effective business processes and helps create accountability in the organization. You can't consistently improve an operation without good metrics.

Companies that don't measure anything (except for financial metrics) tend to either be one of two types: 1) Unstructured, wild, and ruled by fiefdoms and politics, or 2) Micro-managed and run by tyrannical leaders. Good measurement helps you avoid both of those scenarios.

Measurement is an ongoing job - it requires that you test metrics, and change and improve them as your operation changes. We never perfect metrics, only improve them over time.

Objectives & KPIs

Objectives (OKRs/Rocks) are goal-setting tools. They help you create improvements and change. Objectives ensure ambition in an organization. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) tell you about performance. Objectives are how you lead an organization to a brighter future while KPIs are the key accountability tool for managing the organization’s performance.

KPIs measure the steady state of the organization and are predictive of the overall performance of the business. If performance on a given KPI is weak, then an Objective/Goal/OKR/Rock can be created to improve performance in that area.

"In your finance team’s case, if their ability to submit their contracts on time has slipped so far that it’s become a common issue (and it sounds like it has), it makes perfect sense to elevate it to the level of an OKR. Once it’s holding steady, you can demote it to a KPI - you still want to keep an eye on it - but it doesn’t need to be an OKR because it doesn’t need to change" (Source: Dear Andy: Converting KPIs to OKRs)

Objectives and KPIs work well together - Atlassian and Gitlab are two companies that use OKRs and KPIs together.


Lagging & Leading Performance Indicators

Lagging Indicators Explain Performance

Lagging Indicators (also called output metrics) tell you about performance. Common Lagging Indicators are measures like revenue, profitability, market share, CSAT, NPS. These metrics are out of your direct control - you can't act on a revenue number. The work you did last week, last month, last quarter, and last year produce the revenue output.

Outcome measures tell how successful you were, and point at areas that you can improve. You need accurate and timely reporting on Lagging Indicators. They may signal that a change in process is needed, a product isn't selling, or that quality is suffering.

Lagging Indicators don't tell why performance is good or bad, or how to change to improve. Lagging Indicators are commonplace and relatively easy to measure, which causes many organizations to rely too much on them.

Leading Indicators Are Predictive & Influenceable

Leading Indicators are also called lead measures or input metrics. Leading Indicators predict performance. Creating good Leading Indicators is one of the most high-leverage activities that management can take on because they tell you how to improve.

Leading Indicators need to be both causal (rather than correlative) and goal-based. Accomplishing those two things usually requires some finesse. It's fine to track "sales outreach," but what you really want to track is "high-quality sales outreach that leads to moving customers 1 step down the funnel."

Good Leading Indicators measure the success of your processes rather than the outcomes they produce. The more upstream, activity-based metrics you can track the better, assuming they're truly predictive of performance.

Leading Indicators can require a lot of legwork, and ongoing manual work. You may need Managers to observe a situation and document a result, rather than using automation or more objective measures.

Sean J. Taylor refers to the iterative process of Leading Indicator design in his article Designing and evaluating metrics. He explains that "the "lifecycle of a metric" involves an ongoing process of designing a metric, discussing it, validating it, experimenting with using it, optimizing it, and then changing it out when it's no longer helpful in predicting performance.

Graphic from Designing and evaluating metrics:


Finding a balance of Lagging and Leading Indicators is important for understanding the health and performance of an organization and continuing to create, test, refine, and change Leading Indicators is a key challenge for management.

North Star Metrics

North Star Metrics are singular Lagging Indicators the entire organization rallies around, usually in the pursuit of growth. A North Star metric makes simple and clear what the organization is optimizing for, above all else.

North Star Metrics can be user metrics, customer satisfaction metrics, operational metrics, or financial metrics. These metrics look a lot like BHAGs framed as KPIs.

Facebook's North Star Metric was Monthly Active Users, Slack's was Daily Active Users, Stripe's was processing volume. Frank Slootman used a North Star Metric at Service Now:

"We compensated the ServiceNow exec team on just one metric. It was unquestionably the purest performance metric for a cloud software company. Our board fought me on this. They were convinced a grown up company had to have a balanced scorecard, arguably the worst idea to ever come out of academia. People say they want focus, but their actions do not bear it out, quite the opposite." - Frank Slootman (Source: Amp It Up!)

A good North Star Metric should represent sustainable business growth, and not be subject to "hacks" that can artificially inflate numbers. Using supporting and pairing metrics around a North Star Metric can tell you if that metric is being gamed or artificially inflated.

Early-stage companies should stay away from optimizing for single metrics and instead focus on producing a valuable customer experience. The customer experience at an early stage is likely a set of qualitative measures.

Organization-Level KPIs

A Handful of Organization-Level KPIs

Whether you optimize to a North Star Metric or not, your organization should have 5-15 KPIs that are monitored on a regular basis. Common organization-level KPIs are metrics like Revenue, Cash Balance, Sales, Customer Satisfaction, Accounts Receivable/Payable, and Client Project Status. There’s a balance to strike, as the more metrics you monitor, the more noise and complexity you create.

Each organization-level KPI should have an accountable person assigned to it. Each metric should have a department or group of departments that are accountable for the performance of that metric.

Balanced KPIs

KPIs should be balanced across the critical areas of the business. Many organizations overly rely on financial lagging indicators, which don't tell you anything about how your people are performing, whether customers are happy, and whether your processes are working or not.

Balancing your KPIs across finance, product quality, customer satisfaction, critical processes, and your various functions gives you a well-rounded view of the business.

Reporting Weekly

KPIs should be designed to be updated and reviewed on a regular basis. Most organizations review their organization-level KPIs weekly, at the leadership team level.

There are many ways to report on performance, but the easiest way for small organizations is with a simple spreadsheet.

In a spreadsheet, input your metrics in Rows, and your Weeks in Columns, so that you have a rolling 12-week record of performance.

Here's one example from Traction Tools software:


You can also build your metrics into your One-Page plan and report directly out of your Leadership Team tool. Drawback: If you do not share your One-Page Plan openly with the wider organization, you'll need to duplicate your reporting to share it with the broader team.

Department & Team-Level KPIs

Each Department or Team should have a set of 5-15 KPIs that tell them about performance in their area. Every core process in the business should have an associated KPI, especially those processes that cross over functions/departments.

For example, HR may have Lagging and Leading Indicators that cover areas like Recruiting, Employee Performance, Employee Engagement, Employee Development, and DEI.

Each of the Organization-level KPIs is owned by an appropriate Department, but each Department has additional KPIs that are not Organization-level KPIs. Some Departments may have no Organization-level KPIs they're accountable for.

Departments should be responsible for managing their own KPIs and keeping them updated in a public, accessible place, like a Dashboard and/or within an internal Knowledge Base.

People-Level KPIs

Much of the business wisdom says that individuals should all have a number that they can be measured on and assessed by on a regular basis. Unfortunately, for most knowledge work and management roles, we can't reduce performance to a single number. Once management reduces individuals to a single number, the organization starts to lose sight of critical, less measurable ideals like our core values and operating principles.

Having a balanced set of KPIs for given roles and teams is a worthy goal. One way to humanize this effort is to ask people to create their own numbers by which they'll measure themselves. Creating our own numbers, divorced from management incentives, can help us improve our own work and ensure we're accountable to the larger organization.

KPI Principles

Start With Questions

The metrics you track should be informed by your goals. Start with the key questions that you want answers to in the business.

Key Questions
  • How will we know we've won?
  • How do we know we're on track?
  • How do we know it's working?

It's seductive to start with what's easy to measure and hope to improve your metrics over time, but that strategy is often no better than measuring nothing.

Keep It to a Handful

Measure only what's necessary. Track only those metrics that are likely to serve you in the near future. There are unlimited metrics one can track, but only a handful of metrics can move the business forward.

"When you ask people to measure twenty or thirty indicators, it causes confusion. Settle on a few key indicators...The multibillion-dollar company Danaher measures just six metrics." (Source: CEO Tools 2.0)

Frame Metrics Positively

Report on positive metrics, not negative metrics. We want to focus on winning, not avoiding losses. Metrics that are framed around "getting worse" - avoiding losing clients, or preventing employee churn - are not motivating. Measure customer retention, not churn.

Use Pairing Metrics

Don't rely on a single metric to tell you the truth. Pair two metrics together to present a fuller picture of reality. Analyzing a number of sales outreach attempts may tell you something about effort, but combining that metric with funnel velocity will tell you if that activity is creating results. Other examples:

  • If you measure sales, you should measure retention of those sales
  • If you measure support tickets processed, you should measure CSAT scores

Use Target Ranges

Once you've defined metrics, you'll develop a sense of what "good" and "bad" performance is. Once you know what "good," is, it's hard not to try to aim for better, and to apply a number to that. Instead of setting targets for individuals and teams, use upper and low ranges to define performance.

An upper range is a realistic ideal and a lower range is the lowest you'll go without needing something to change. Deciding on a range of performance rather than a target helps clarify boundaries and creates shared expectations.

"Instead of single points, work with imprecise targets, ranges of values, or merely a direction. Google has solved this by asking its employees to set multiple difficult targets for themselves with the strong suggestion that it should not be possible to achieve them all. The effect is that the targets become merely a range and a direction instead of one fixed point." - Jurgen Appelo (Source: Managing for Happiness)

Consider Indexes of Metrics

If you're struggling to reduce key indicators to just a few, consider rolling up multiple measures into an index. An index is a weighted average of many metrics (i.e. the stock market index). An index will simplify complexity while still allowing you to dig into specific areas if scores are low.

Audit Leading Indicators

Don't rely on your first stab at a given Leading Indicator. Use qualitative assessment and your own judgment to verify that the metric is predictive of the important Lagging Indicator. Assess whether that Indicator is producing unproductive behaviors or externalities that undermine performance.

"Unless you have a regular process to independently validate the metric, assume that over time something will cause it to drift and skew the numbers. If the metric is important, find out a way to do a separate measurement or gather customer anecdotes and see if the information trues up with the metric you're looking at." (Source: Working Backwards)

KPI Examples

GitLab has 10 critical organization-level KPIs that they track. Their North Star Metric is Net ARR.
CEO Tools 2.0 shares Snapper Lawn Mower's Top 5 KPIs systems, appropriate for a small business with a simple business model. They had five daily, five weekly and five monthly KPIs that were sent to the top executive.
  • Top 5 daily KPIs: Daily cash amount; Number of retail units sold; Number of units manufactured, by type; Walk-behind units; Rear-engine units; Tractors, etc.
  • Top 5 weekly KPIs: Cash forecast for the next week; Customer service metrics; Sales bookings in dollars; Where grass was growing (weather and seasonal patterns); Factory production cost performance
  • Top 5 monthly KPIs: Monthly and year-to-date financials in summary form; Overall customer satisfaction; Market share; Progress reports on strategic initiatives; Employee satisfaction index
Baremetrics has a list of startups that share their KPIs openly and their dashboards

How to Craft Metrics

How to Define Metrics

Assign an Accountable Person

Assign each metric to a single person who will report on the metric on a consistent basis. The accountable person is not responsible for performance - the team/department/organization is responsible - they’re simply accountable for reporting.

A metric like "Customer Retention" can be measured in many ways (Gross Retention? Net Retention?), may be pulled from multiple channels, and is the responsibility of many people.

An accountable person makes key decisions and ensures the metric is reported on and improved over time.

Create an Operational Definition

What exactly are you measuring? How will that measurement be taken? Write a sentence about the measure and what exactly tracks.

Define the metric as a Lagging or Leading Indicator and find a way to tag it as such in your reporting.

Define the Range

Decide on a range for that metric and a timeline for that range. What's an ideal outcome? What's good? What's acceptable? What's bad? In what timeframe?
Decide on how you'll use Red-Yellow-Green color coding to visually report on that range.

Choose a Data Source

Where will the data be pulled the data from? Who can access it?

With many channel options for many metrics, define where that metric will be sourced from, and how you will pull it consistently.

Choose a Reporting Frequency

How frequently will the accountable party update the metric? How frequently will they report on it, and to whom? Where will that report go when they're done producing it?

Getting Started With KPIs

Create Organization-Level KPIs

Gather your leadership team and work through how to assess the performance of the business overall. You can start with a "Balanced Scorecard" as an ideation template for capturing metrics from different angles, or you can have the team mind-map or brainstorm 15+ critical metrics, and then reduce that number to five or 10.

The goal at this stage is not to assign a metric to each person, or try to decide how to determine if they're performing, but to understand how business performance will be understood.

Once you're clear on what your overall Organizational KPIs are, you can tackle measurement at a departmental level.

Create Department-Level KPIs

Start in one department, or with one team or core process. You can choose an area that is performing poorly or an area that is most ready for change. Focus on designing great KPIs, testing them, and improving them over time, and then standardize that process before moving to the next area.

Work with Departmental leaders to pull together the 5-10 Organization-Level KPIs and set up accountability and a reporting cadence. Delegate the creation of these KPIs to the team level.

Leadership can contribute with thoughts on Leading vs. Lagging Indicators that could be helpful, but if Leadership creates KPIs for Departments, you won't generate the commitment or sense of team responsibility that you need. KPIs will evolve and change as your organization does, and you need individuals to take responsibility for their performance by testing, tweaking, and improving their KPIs over time.

Dashboarding Performance

Why Dashboards Work

Reporting on your KPIs in dashboards allows everyone in the organization to understand performance at a glance - a powerful tool for alignment and motivation. Dashboards visually represent a significant slice of the reality of performance in the organization. Dashboards fit into a single page, and they "travel" well. They tell you what you need to know, quickly, to support or check a narrative.

Easy Dashboarding

Build a simple dashboard to display KPI performance

You don't need a sophisticated database, tools for ETL, and a data visualization setup to get started with dashboards.

The most simple dashboard is a daily or weekly email that shows performance with Red-Yellow-Green color-coding (to represent acceptable ranges), and a simple table.

A Google Sheets "database" with a few automations, combined with data visualization in Google Data Studio, is a 100% free way to start visualizing data.

Automate Data

Automate as much of the data as possible to keep your reporting process as lightweight as possible. If reporting is time-consuming and error-prone, people will learn to dread reporting and the organization will learn to stop trusting metrics over time.

As you automate, continue auditing your metrics - you don't want to go 6 months incorrectly tracking an organization-level metric.

Publish Publicly

Default to posting Dashboards publicly, as much as possible. Publish them in your public Knowledge Base so that they're centrally located. You want people to "keep score" and know how the organization is doing, how their team is doing, and how nearby teams are performing.

Amazon's Weekly Business Review kept dashboards at the heart of their organization: "Metrics dashboards and reports are established by every engineering, operations, and business unit at the company. In many cases metrics are monitored in real time, and each critical technical and operational service receives an 'alarm' to ensure that failures and outages are identified instantly." (Source: Working Backwards)

Measurement Warnings

Not Everything That Matters Can Be Measured

Measurement can be taken too far. An organization isn't a machine or a series of machines, and because of that, you'll never be able to measure everything that matters.

"The comparison of organizations with organisms would only be complete if the heart could decide to become a third foot, the left lung had the ambition to take over from the brain, the two eyes were not motivated to synchronize work with each other, and the sexual organs insisted on working remotely...There is no right mix of metrics that will result in an optimization of the whole, so don't even try." - Jurgen Appelo (Source: Managing for Happiness)

Metrics, even good ones, are always imperfect - just proxies for the real thing. Metric design is an attempt to represent the truth, but metrics never tell the whole truth. We can't reduce health, happiness, or quality down to a single metric, reliably.

The McNamara Fallacy is the assumption that things that can't be measured aren't important. We fall into this fallacy because it gives us comfort that we can control outcomes by what we can see, and what we can measure.

Good metrics point us in the right direction and are useful when combined with feedback, conversations, intuition, and judgment.

Be Careful With Targets

Goodhart’s Law tells us that "when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." When we take a measurement focus too far, we end up trying to optimize measures rather than trying to optimize for the actual outcomes we seek. Here are two examples of where targets backfired:

Targets Ruined MBOs

One of the major failures of MBOs is that Managers demanded that individual performance be reduced to a metric. Over time, those metrics became targets, and MBO organizations introduced perverse incentives to hit numbers. The moment we reduce people to numbers and then set targets for our people is the moment at which we lose sight of what's important.

Targets Undermine Learning In Schools

Another example of metrics becoming targets is from public school testing. Psychologist and Social Scientist Donald T. Campbell wrote about how the introduction of standardized test scores as a proxy for learning caused schools and school districts to set targets for scores, which therefore caused them to teach for tests, rather than teach for learning (Source: Campbell's Law).

Metrics Are No Substitute for Judgment

We like metrics because they're supposedly objective. But if we can't accurately measure ideals like quality, creativity, and innovation, what are we to do? More importantly, if you choose to manage your organization by numbers, what ideals will you sacrifice? How will your core values be reinforced? Who will you become?

"Human beings have been endowed not only with the ability to count, but also with the ability to assess quality. Be a quality detector. Be a walking, noisy Geiger counter that registers the presence or absence of quality. If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don't let it pass." - Donella H. Meadows (Source: Thinking In Systems)

Don’t let metrics prevent you from sense-making, or from developing intuition.

Be Careful with Surveys

Lots of companies use NPS and CSAT scores as Outcome metrics. Qualitative data is important and can lead to key insights, but any data collected via survey and reduced to numbers should be looked at with suspicion.

Survey design is difficult. It's hard to create unbiased questions that don't lead people toward the answers you want to hear. It's hard to know how people will interpret questions, and you can't assume that all people will interpret questions the same way.

How many responses did you get and who responded? It's hard to know if survey results are representative or just represent a customer segment or a sub-culture.

Moment-in-time surveys give you a snapshot of a moment and are usually heavily biased toward recent events.

You can use open-ended questions instead of multiple-choice questions, but you'll likely get fewer responses.

We’re usually better off spending a couple of hours calling customers and asking them questions instead of relying on open-ended surveys.