Yes Mom, Rock Stars Can Teach You Something

During Scorecard consulting engagements one of the greatest challenges I see my clients struggling with is their desire to find the ‘perfect' measure for every objective on their Strategy Map. Never satisfied with the results of extensive brainstorming and endless debate among their colleagues, many continue to strive for that one holy grail of a measure that will bring perfect clarity and insight to their pursuit of strategy execution. For some the level of frustration eventually reaches a boiling point, inevitably expressed with some form of the sentence, "You just can't measure what we do!" which of course is completely false.

I'm all for tenacity, drive, and commitment to finding measures that illuminate the truth and reduce uncertainty, but after more than fifteen years in the measurement trenches it's become clear that so-called perfect measures don't really exist. But that certainly doesn't mean you should abandon your efforts and leave your quest for execution to chance because what you're attempting to measure is difficult to quantify in a precise fashion. On the contrary, as Jim Collins reminds us, what matters is not finding the perfect measure, but setting upon a consistent and intelligent method of assessing your results, and then tracking your trajectory with rigor. In this article, I'm going to share with you the story of three organizations that did just that, and as you'll discover, these aren't exactly the type of organizations that can simply count widgets. If they can measure the tough stuff, you can too. 

Tracking Success at the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra

When Tom Morris assumed control of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra (the rock stars come next, I promise), he asked Board members what they expected of him during his tenure. Their response: make an already great orchestra even greater, defined by artistic excellence. There is no simple metric you can pick up off the shelf to correspond directly with artistic excellence, but that didn't stop Morris and his team from following Collins's advice and brainstorming a number of consistent and intelligent metrics they could use to serve as proxies for excellence. In the end they counted the number of standing ovations they received, number of pieces played to perfection, invitations to prestigious festivals, and ticket sales in other venues outside of Cleveland.

Morris and his colleagues realized early on that finding an exact measurement of ‘artistic excellence' would prove as difficult as performing Brahms Double Concerto with one hand tied behind their backs, so they settled on simple things they could count, discuss, and learn from.

Coldplay Counts

Chris Martin of Coldplay is a prolific songwriter, but like all performers he realizes that not every song he conceives will connect with his audience. To test what songs work and which don't, Chris and his Coldplay band mates often debut new material during their live shows, in an attempt to determine which tracks are resonating with their fans, and therefore will prove to be good candidates for their next CD release.

Sounds easy enough, but the process is complicated by the fact that while Chris sings, thousands of frenzied fans are screaming right back making it difficult for him to tell whether they're enjoying the song or would similarly whoop it up if he were humming "Happy Birthday." A further complication comes in the form of hundreds of blinding lights pointed at the stage rendering it virtually impossible for the band to judge facial expressions and body language from the audience. So Chris, like all great performance measurement artists, has improvised. What he can see while on stage are the many tunnels leading to the stadium exits, since they're predominantly backlit. When performing new songs the band now looks for shadows in the tunnels. The more silhouettes they see, the less they feel the audience is enjoying the song, opting instead to take the opportunity to visit the restrooms or concession stands. If the exits are crammed during a particular new song it's probably not going to make the cut for their next album. If on the other hand the tunnels are empty, they could very well be performing their next number one single.

Van Halen's Brown M&M Clause

When Van Halen ruled the rock universe back in the early ‘80s, their shows were a legendary mix of over the top showmanship and, for the time, dazzling technology. To accomplish the technology component of the equation, the band was accompanied on the road by nine 18-wheelers full of gear. Because of the complexity of their shows Van Halen relied on an extremely detailed contract with venues to ensure nothing was left to chance. David Lee Roth, the band's lead singer, said it was like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages. This is how a typical article in the contract would read:

"There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 10 amperes."

Imagine hundreds of such technical specifications spanning untold pages and you can bet the typical concert promoter's head was spinning in confusion. The band knew it was a distinct possibility the entire contract wouldn't be read, and therefore, problems could result at the show. To ensure that didn't happen Van Halen buried a special clause in the middle of the contract, called Article 126. It read, "There will be no brown M&M's in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation." So when Roth arrived at a new venue, he'd walk backstage and glance at the M&M bowl. If he saw brown M&M's he'd demand a line check of the entire production. "Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error," he said. "They didn't read the contract. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show."

Roth didn't have the time, or the inclination one would speculate, to spend hours checking the amperage of every socket. He needed a quick and easy way to assess whether or not the stagehands were focused on the specifics of the contract, and the brown M&M clause did the trick every time. And so an extremely simple metric, "Number of brown M&M's," served as a proxy for a process that was crucial to concert success.

Repeat After Me, There are No Perfect Measures

"The number of standing ovations received," "Number of silhouettes in the exits," and "Number of Brown M&M's." Are they perfect metrics? No, but what measure is? School test scores are flawed, customer service data is often unconvincing, even medical tests can prove mistaken. What matters is not striving for perfection in measurement, but tracking a small number of simple items, discussing them frequently, analyzing them with rigor to learn from what they're telling you, and tracking your progress towards your mission.

So the next time you're stuck on finding that perfect measure just start singing "Viva la Vida," or "Panama" and remember that if simple measures can work for Chris Martin and David Lee Roth, they can work for you.


-The Jim Collins quote and Cleveland Symphony Orchestra story are drawn from: Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, pp. 7 - 8.

-The Coldplay example is drawn from an interview with Chris Martin on the CBS program "60 Minutes," February 8, 2009.

-The Van Halen story is drawn from: Chip Heath and Dan Heath, "The Telltale Brown M & M" Fast Company, March 2010, pp. 36-37.