Why The Metric Matters

Around this time last year, my son was coming home with some really (!) disappointing grades. It was driving my husband and I a little crazy cause we knew he was more than capable of acing the work. (Ex: He would do the homework but neglect to turn it in. He would ace the test but then forget something like putting his name on the test so it never got recorded.) So I did something I swore I would never do: I set up a quota system for kiddo. For every A, $100 bucks, B’s earned $25 but C’s were negative 200 bucks and so on. So 5 A’s and 1 B got him $525 Bucks to spend, but 4 As, 1 B, 1 C got him $225.

While I wanted kiddo to be motivated by the inherent value of learning, I could see he wasn’t motivated to jump thru hoops to prove he learned it. So, I turned to my business toolkit, and putting in place a “comp model” by defining metrics and rewarding an outcome as the way to encourage the right kind of organization, focus, and prioritization. He ended up with a 3.80 GPA, and he was thrilled (as were we, the parental units).

Setting up and incentivizing external metrics often make sense, but choosing the wrong metrics can cause a real problem.

Value-creation metrics escalate you towards the work you already want to and need to do. Vanity metrics can be diametrically opposed to the work.

I Chose the Wrong Metric, Too

This was the case with launching my 3rd book…The Power of Onlyness. For most of 2017, I had one specific metric in mind: To make this book a NYT bestseller.

I literally had everything I could have asked for:

  • A world-changing idea
  • Compelling stories that people allowed me to learn and decode
  • Top-notch publisher in Viking/Penguin
  • Recognition as one of the top management thinkers in the world
  • Articulation of a way of work that used distributed networks to unlock innovation

At first the signals looked good. For example, the Today Show said they wanted to feature a story or two out of the book and asked ‘who would we line up to create great B roll?’. Then Krista Tippett, whose podcast On Beingbooked me and I was thrilled as I adore her interviews and thought she’d really “get” Onlyness. Then, Kai Ryssdall of NPR Marketplace said I would be on.

But, Kai cancelled. And Krista Tippett waited until the night before I was in a city to do the recording to bail. The Today Show… ghosted. And a bunch of business publications who have loved prior work of mine “passed” on this work.

I started to WONDER if I had suddenly developed the author equivalent of halitosis, but I tried to remain open and curious. When key professional reviews seemed to completely skip the key point and talked of the idea in super reductive ways, I worked to learn and redirect our efforts. The gap between my sense of what I had created, and the lack of immediate market response (as measured by the NYT best seller), caused a deep abyss that I fell into and couldn’t get out of.

I spent most of the 2nd half of 2017 miserable at having “failed”.

And this caused a distortion to not be present to what WAS working… I was invited to give talks in 20 cities, and in nearly every audience, at least one person said the book had already “changed their life”. But because this didn’t translate to the near-term visible market metric of NYT bestseller, I discounted it. Though I had influential people sharing the book with other influential people, and saying, “this book shows the way to use distributed networks to spread power and thus shift who is able to drive innovation and change”…. all I was noticing was the lack of pickup in major media. It meant I would read the email where a person wrote to share they “talked about the book nearly every day, to many people… ever since reading it”… without feeling the joy of someone valuing the idea enough to share. Despite the book getting shortlisted for some awards, and longlisted for others,

I started to focus, even obsess, on the ways it wasn’t getting traction.

Now, you might be asking yourself what WTF is wrong with her? So did friends/colleagues/people I trust. I would tell them inklings of things that were being said… For example, the leader of a Diversity and Inclusion effort at one of the top companies in the world told me they look to Onlyness as a new framework. Pioneering entrepreneurs were saying how this could be a great tool for others to navigate their original ideas. A head of an organization that trains 20,000 young leaders a year asked if I could help build some curriculum around Onlyness. Someone delivered it to the Obama Foundation. Another person delivered it to Carnegie foundation leaders. These were all early signs that the reason I did the work was … working. As friends heard these stories and then how I was responding, they shook their head at me and said something to the effect of… WTF is wrong with you?

What was wrong, I ask myself? For quite a while in fact, I didn’t know. I was just in a funk. But now I think I have some answers.

The Right Metric

By defining the metric of success in an external way that I had no real chance of controlling… I had given away my power. That’s why I (slowly) got depressed. After all, I could do everything “right”, and not become a NYT bestseller. I had chosen something that was not only the metric of success, but the metric was specifically other peoples’ perceptions of the work which set me up to give away my power.

An external metric that you can’t control is the way to let others define whether something is a success.

It’s perfectly fine to want market acknowledgement, but making it the metric of success steers the focus to the wrong thing. It is choosing vanity metrics, not value-creation metrics.

And that’s why I share this story. To realize what I needed to relearn.

As I wrote in Onlyness, there are two ways to conduct oneself in daily life. One is to be competitive/comparative and measure your own value against that of others. And the other is to do so in a contributive way which is to focus on doing what you can. Comparative judgments and the inevitable anxiety to which they give rise do not inspire you to use your own only for the good of the world. But contributive focus does, because it inspires you to do what you, and perhaps only you, can.

Rewards and metrics are important. But they must be tied to what you can effect. And learn from.

Also, our son did great because he ultimately had the space to do great. He had readjusted to changing countries. I’m not sure our rewards and external metrics helped. It probably added much and unneeded pressure. Metrics can be disempowering if real factors (for him, moving countries; for the book release, the crazy news cycles that #45 creates/thrives on) are discounted. Looking back, it would be far better for me to have defined success as having done my best to offer a vision of the future of work, where each of us has the capacity to contribute because of distributed networks and way they enable us to connect and act meaningfully. This I did. And did as well as I knew how. And will be my foundation for what I do next.


Knowing so many of us are defining goals for the year, can you use this story to look at yours? Metrics can be crucial to outcomes. Choose yours carefully. As you define metrics, choose those that enable you to focus your attention on what you can (and want to) do and then learn from, and do better.

12 Replies

    1. Thanks, Lonny… I feel like I lost my way there for a while and am grateful for the people who are walking with me, towards the future.

  1. “There are two ways to conduct oneself in daily life. One is to be competitive/comparative and measure your own value against that of others (…) Comparative judgments and the inevitable anxiety to which they give rise do not inspire you to use your own only for the good of the world (…)”

    Nilofer, if I may, I’d like to make two comments on the above quote.

    Aside from the anxiety, here is the irony of winning: Every time we win, we, actually, have beaten something lesser than ourself. So, winning is a self-feeding loop of deception. Making that unconscious thought conscious could help one free his/herself from this cultural addiction.

    “Expectations that are only statistical are no longer human,” once said James Hillman. In that sense, it is natural that “the goal of becoming a NYT bestseller” did not inspire you, for it was a “dead” goal. Inspire, on the other hand, is an “alive” concept, meaning ‘breathe into.’

    I am sure, going forward, Onlyness will continue playing the role of a Muse, breathing ingenuity, imagination, and encouragement into people’ lives.

    PS: Glad to have your blog back.

  2. We met on Twitter when you took on Michael Porter in the Harvard Business Review. We met in person at University of Washington. I was with Michael B. Maine​. You walked right up to Michael. I was honored to be in the company of the two best dressed people in the room. AND you remembered me from Twitter.

    You gave away self-published copes of 11 Rules for Creating Value in #SocialEra. I had already purchased and read the book. I took two copies and passed them on to a friend. I purchased a package of 5 or 6 books of Onlyness and I went to a book signing at some tech office in Portland. Your presentation was flat. You offered more free books – I left without taking one or attempting to speak with you.

    Onlyness is not a unique concept – Margaret Mead said it differently – “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.” The book and your presentation came off to me as “too academic.” What I love about you is your spontaneity, you willingness to step away from the pack, voice your own opinion and stand firm. I am happy to see you reclaiming your power.

    Just one more comment – Metrics don’t matter. People matter.

    1. Diane,

      Just a quick note to clarify.

      Everyone has ideas to contribute because they have a unique and valuable POV that no-one else has is very much resonant with Meads’s idea (and the Bible’s, for that matter). That’s not a new idea NOR the idea of onlyness. The thing that Onlyness argues for is that connectivity allows the potential for these ideas to be leveraged for greater good more than ever before. Think for example the #metoo phenomena. It’s not like women haven’t been saying their singular truth about harassment. The new incremental phenomena is how a new union / set of people aligned against an idea can create change. That singularly unique Perspective that ONLY you can have coupled with connectedNESS of the web creates ONLYNESS – The connected you (and the potential that creates to add value and be valued simultaneously) in distributed networks to get new outcomes. This latest body of work, then is HOW to actually navigate that terrain and why 2/3 of the book addresses the first person plural (we/us/ours/let’s)…way to create social change, reinvent industries and certainly fuel innovation.

      I’m sorry to hear now that you found the Portland presentation flat. I don’t remember it that way, but now understand why you left without saying hello. I wonder what new exchange could have happened if you had said, “I’m finding this quite academic and yet I know you/value you as quite provocative… what is the edgy thing about Onlyness you’re not saying… ?” That would have probably closed any gap and the conversation made even more meaningful… by process of that co-creative act. The future is not created. The future is co-created.

  3. Thank you for this. I also have become completely discouraged by having huge ideas and goals that ignored what I was already doing successfully. I will re-think my metric when I start to feel like nothing is working 🙂

    1. Glad this could be helpful, Madeleine, just to be conscious of how to choose metrics that help you to keep going in the “right” direction + things you can usefully learn from…

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  5. My friend. I just finished it. Terrific book. I am adding it to a multi-book review on Forbes. I saw the idea for Onlyness formulating over a few talks. Thrilled that it is now accessible so others can learn and grow.

    FWIW, if I can’t love my book any more and I can’t learn anything more on the topic, it’s time to publish.

    If it touches one soul, job done. Metric accomplished. I write for me and to grow me. I publish in case it might help that one other person.

    Stay gold. Love ya. Go Nilofer!

  6. I am so happy to see this post . . . for so many reasons. Our self-described metrics for failure, meaning, success. They can drive us into the ground. Thank you for committing to continuing your work and bringing #onlyness to the forefront for us little people who strive to make our dent in the world. Thank you for honoring your truth, your desires and what you deem a failure. We all have so much to learn! To grace!

    1. Naomi, And I hope you know that i appreciate every reader who has gotten past the packaging to see the value of the idea. At it’s simplest, Onlyness says each of us count and offers a comprehensive framework for why that now works in modern times (in a way that just couldn’t 10 years ago). That’s important stuff, and that if it makes any different at all in the lives of someone making a dent… well, that is why I wrote it. You are not “little”, none of us are. And so please don’t take my public complaining and whining as dismissing what IS working. I am deeply grateful.

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