“Where are we, and what should we do” is a question I’ve had to answer on many consulting engagements. It’s often wrapped in very different language – “How do I deliver this product?”, “Can we invent a new service to serve this type of client?”, “How do we counter this competitor’s move?” are all variants of the same fundamental question.

“Where are we” is often a really hard question. Qualitative assessments – “we’re the quality leader in our market”, “we’re broadly on track”, “we have happy clients” are great, but very hard to analyze for patterns and underlying issues. Quantitative measures – “our velocity is 33 points / sprint”, “we need to be finished in 6 weeks”, “we’ve spent £x out of a budget of £y” are much easier to track, but metrics are often gamed, and future projections are often unreliable. Some important attributes are hard to capture in numbers – how loyal are your customers really? How productive is a developer? How “big” is this project?

Nevertheless, understanding where you are is key to deciding what to do next. I worked with a client once who had a fundamental usability problem with one of the key customer interactions. This manifested in really low loyalty – customers would try the service, get a good experience during purchase, but a bad experience during delivery. They asked us to help improve customer loyalty – they had correctly found that loyalty was well below industry standard. But the reason for poor loyalty (“where are we?”) was not a shortage of features or benefits in the loyalty program. Our initial briefing was to find innovative loyalty ideas; yet the first 5 customers we spoke to all told us that the service had been below par, and that this was their primary reason for not returning. Once this became clear, “what should we do” was obvious.

The numbers, in this case, were all there – we had “low loyalty” numbers, as well as indicators that customer satisfaction with the core experience was low. Digging into application statistics, there were plenty of numerical indicators showing the point where customers were dropping out. What was missing was the story making sense of those numbers.

This is one reason I like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs): the objective is a story. We’re going to dominate the market! We’re going to build an amazing product! We’ll create a fantastic team!. The key results are the numbers that tell you whether your story is going to come true.

Most people I know are not motivated by numbers – even numbers like “salary” are only marginally interesting – it’s the stories people tell about the numbers that matter. “Once I get a salary of £x, I will go on that safari holiday I’ve always wanted”. The story matters.