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What You Measure Is What You Get

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are the compass by which businesses navigate the complex world of goals and objectives. In the corporate landscape, “What you measure is what you get” takes on a new level of significance. KPIs are not just numbers; they are the cornerstone of strategic planning and execution and the compass guiding organizations towards success. However, the focus on specific KPIs comes with a caveat. There are some potential pitfalls on using KPIs as a compass.

The Significance of KPIs

KPIs are essential tools for monitoring and evaluating performance and progress. They provide a quantifiable way to measure achievements and highlight areas that require attention. Whether in business, education, or personal goals, choosing the right KPIs is crucial for steering efforts in the desired direction.

Potential pitfalls

While KPIs are invaluable, a myopic focus on specific metrics can lead to unintended consequences:

Perverse incentives

Perverse incentives refer to situations in which well-intentioned actions or policies result in unintended and often undesirable outcomes due to the way they are structured. These incentives can lead individuals or organizations to behave in ways that run counter to the original goals or intentions. Essentially, they create a scenario where individuals are motivated to achieve a certain outcome, but the methods they employ may be detrimental or counterproductive in the broader context.

This phenomenon is known as the “cobra effect“, named after an anecdote from colonial India where a bounty / reward on cobras led to an increase in cobra breeding to get more rewards rather than their eradication. Similarly, when organizations concentrate solely on a few selected KPIs, employees may be tempted to optimize their actions to meet those metrics, sometimes at the expense of broader organizational goals.

Focus on Short-Term Goals

Another risk is a narrow and intense focus on immediate objectives, often at the expense of broader, long-term considerations. It’s akin to wearing blinders that limit one’s perspective to a specific, short-range view, neglecting the peripheral vision needed for strategic decision-making and sustained success.

Example: The Vietnam War

A historical illustration of the consequences of narrowly focused metrics can be found in the Vietnam War. Military strategist Gregory Daddis highlights the dangers of fixating on specific KPIs, such as body counts. During the conflict the U.S. military, under pressure to show progress, heavily emphasized the metric of enemy casualties.

This singular focus on body counts, however, led to detrimental outcomes. In the pursuit of higher numbers, some military units engaged in actions that prioritized quantity over strategic importance. This approach not only failed to capture the complexities of the guerrilla warfare in Vietnam but also alienated local populations, hindering the overall mission.

3. Focusing on isolated KPIs

The pitfall of solely focusing on isolated KPIs, for example financial outcomes, is the risk of overlooking the broader context. It’s crucial to consider the interplay between different metrics and to interpret the developments of KPIs in a broader context to make informed decisions and avoid potential blind spots. The balanced scorecard of Kaplan & Norton is an answer to the problem of isolated KPIs; see the case study further in this article.

Closely related to this topic is the pitfall of flawed interpretation. An article on this topic will follow soon.

Balancing Act: Choosing the Right KPIs

To harness the power of metrics effectively, organizations must strike a balance in selecting and prioritizing KPIs. A comprehensive approach involves identifying key indicators that align with the organization’s objectives. This may include customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and innovation, alongside financial metrics.

Moreover, regularly reassessing and adjusting KPIs is vital to ensuring they remain relevant and reflective of the organization’s evolving priorities. Flexibility in measurement criteria allows for adaptability in the face of changing market dynamics and internal challenges.

Case Study: The Balanced Scorecard Approach

One popular framework that addresses the potential pitfalls of focusing on isolated KPIs is the Balanced Scorecard. Developed by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton, this approach advocates for a holistic view of organizational performance. It incorporates financial metrics, customer perspectives, internal processes, and learning and growth indicators.

By considering multiple dimensions, the Balanced Scorecard promotes a more well-rounded evaluation of performance. This discourages the negative side effects of a narrow focus and encourages a more strategic, long-term approach to success.


“What you measure is what you get,” especially when it comes to KPIs. These metrics are the lifeblood of organizations, shaping the outcomes they achieve. By carefully selecting, tracking, and responding to KPIs, businesses can steer their path toward success. However, it’s equally essential to ensure that KPIs align with an organization’s core values and long-term goals. When used wisely, KPIs become a powerful tool for continuous improvement and strategic growth, driving organizations closer to their vision of success.

What key performance indicators could help you measure and achieve success in your personal or professional life? How can you use these metrics to steer your path towards your own goals and aspirations?

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