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How to align KPIs (and influence people).

For those of us in the storytelling business, baffling an audience with acronyms is a cardinal sin. Other professionals may get away with hiding behind jargon framed in capital letters — but our job involves conveying meaning, and chucking a misplaced acronym at the problem does anything but. 

Consider KPIs — and then consider how many times you’ve seen something called a KPI that doesn’t actually meet the requirements. 

Key performance indicators are indeed powerful tools for quantifying success, but not every success metric is a KPI. 

The communication gap usually arises between the phrases “performance indicator” and “key”: All kinds of elements in a project can be measured — billable hours, PowerPoint decks, sandwiches served in client meetings — but that doesn’t make all of them key to the success of the specific element you want to measure. 

As strategic performance consultant Bernard Marr puts it, “Unfortunately, there is often a disconnect between whether something can be measured and whether it should be measured. Therefore one of the biggest mistakes that people make with KPIs is measuring everything that is easy to measure, regardless of its relevance to the business.”

KPI mavens often put prospective KPIs to the SMART test: Are they specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound? If any of these characteristics are out of whack, you’ll have a hard time deriving meaningful insights about performance. 

Putting it in simpler terms: The misuse of KPIs frequently comes down to a misalignment between goals and tools and measurements.

A good (if apocryphal) example of a KPI mismatch is this popular tale about a Soviet nail factory: When Moscow set quotas by quantity, the factory met them by manufacturing tiny, useless nails. When Moscow course-corrected to set quotas by weight, the factory adapted by manufacturing large, heavy spikes.

The lesson: A goal may be right for the project, but if the brand uses the wrong tool to achieve that goal — or the right tool, but the wrong measurement — it almost never results in useful intel about success.

If you want to increase brand awareness, for example, publishing a technical white paper is probably the wrong way to do it. The goal is worthy, the tool may be top quality, and you may scrupulously measure its performance, but the mismatch is unlikely to bring you closer to the goal. 

No more. To align strategic goals with tactical tools into real KPIs, we give you the easy-to-assemble KPI Alignment Wheel. You bring the printer, scissors and a brad fastener (if you’re feeling fancy); we’ve brought a veritable Magic Eight Ball to align your strategies and tactics to the appropriate marketing stage. 

While the KPI Alignment Wheel doesn’t account for every possible scenario that requires a KPI, it does cover the fundamentals required to create a KPI and measure it meaningfully. 

The power of the wheel lies in its simplicity: If the KPIs you have in mind are too arcane to line up with this visualization tool, consider whether the metrics you’re pursuing are too obscure and subtle truly to be key to performance. 

Enjoy, and please report back on your adventures in KPI-ing.

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Further Reading

There’s more than one way to build a KPI. Here are some additional resources to keep your KPIs in line. 

  • Where to begin with KPIs. To accomplish anything, KPIs require organizational buy-in; that’s why Harvard Business Review contributor Graham Kenny counsels that KPI creation should start by identifying the key stakeholders who’ll contribute to or benefit from the KPIs you identify. Grab a stake, and jump in here

  • What manufacturing can teach us about KPIs. Like Lean strategies, KPIs were in common use in factories before they were adopted by other industries. Here’s a list of 34 industrial-strength KPIs for manufacturing. How would you adapt them to build creative assets?
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