How high is the water?

In ancient Egypt the Nile was the source of life and death. Even today this almost entirely desert country depends heavily on the annual flooding of the Nile as the melting snow packs in Ethiopia raise the water level.

Predicting the next flood level meant a great deal to the pain or gain of the nation and so Nilometers – a simple yet accurate flood gauge structure – evolved. Even as priests prayed, potents hoped and people waited the Nilometer offered a sign of what was to come.

For those able to read it.

You see, access to the meters was heavily restricted and even if it weren’t, not understanding the link between the spring water level and the fall harvest – or lack thereof – was literally a matter of life and death.

Where’s your meter?

Every day we strain the flow of data from the information superhighway, plumb the depths of the social media eco system and dabble in the latest sure-fire best-selling system in efforts to divine the future of our business albeit often with accuracy less than the local weatherman. A Nilometer – measuring the answer literally at our feet – would come in handy.

For years people have wondered about the secret to success in the workplace. Why do some prosper while so many struggle only to be left behind in the annual flood of performance reviews? It turns out the answers are much less esoteric than we might imagine. Fundamentally, every organization has a few key indicators which you could measure with a meter of your own, and in so doing would tell which way the wind blows and the water flows.

If you just knew what counted.

We used to say what gets measured gets managed. It was another bromide we tossed overboard without thinking. But back in the day when the HP12C financial calculator was the highest tech tool we had (and I still proudly use mine daily) this little aside made a lot of sense. It took time and energy to measure things so we searched for what really mattered and had to dig to really understand the linkages in our business.  Once uncovered however we could build our Nilometers concentrating on the “critical few” [elements] as Deming would have said.

Today we’re immersed in a flood of quasi-information: a veritable river of bytes buffets us all day long and its also easy for us to parse them. We have more data analysis tools available on our e-trade screen than the crew of Apollo 13. That’s a lot of power. Yet having so much data (big data fans notwithstanding) is almost as bad as having a paucity of same. Just because we can track, analyze and graph every thing should we?

We need a key. We need to be discriminating and understand what really matters in our business or non-profit. These measures are often financial or productivity or throughput. They can be trended. Ratios can be divined. Slopes and predictions can be determined. As long as you know the key pieces of information. Like. say, how high the water will be.

The key to success it turns out is ignoring the noise. Why spend time on tertiary issues when concentrating on what really matters is what makes a difference? Each organization has a critical few set of measures that help predict success or failure. Do you know what they are? Have you measured them? Do you know what drives them? Measures and meters are essential to success in any environment.

If you know how to read them.


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