posttitle = Needles you can’t move with your hand titleClass =title-long len =43

Needles you can’t move with your hand

What do you want? Great, go get it. Tomorrow, maybe.

This is better advice for some things than others. To use a trivial example, say you’re part of a business that involves selling directly to clients. And your goal is to grow sales by X% this year. Well, you can’t reach out and directly move the dial on how much product the company has sold. What you can do is make more sales calls. Just remember: what ultimately matters isn’t the number of calls but the annual sales.

Lead & Lag measures

The 4 Disciplines of Execution (great pdf summary here) calls this distinction “lead measures” vs “lag measures”. Lead measures are the ones that you can influence directly, in the short term. They tend to be relatively “instrumental“—not things you want intrinsically, so much as things you want because they help you get things you do want intrinstically. The lead measures that you choose for a given situation represent a belief you have about the best way to influence the lag measure. For the most part, you’d happily choose a different lead measure if you thought that’s what could get you closer to the goal.

Briefly, some examples that follow this pattern:

    • # of pushups done is a lead measure… max # of pushups you can do is a lag measure
    • caloric intake or other dietary numbers are lead measures… your weight / health is usually relatively laggy
    • hours studied is a lead measure… grades are a lag measure
    • number of people messaged on okcupid is a lead measure… actually getting dates or a relationship is a lag measure

  • same as the previous one but for resumes and jobs
  • unit tests in programming is a lead measure… having the system not crash is a lag measure

You’ll note that you can usually decide on a given day to achieve success on the lead measure, but not on the lag measure. You may also note that in each case it remains to be seen if doing lots of the former will in fact lead to the latter. If you do it poorly (or some other factor is not present) it may not work.

So these kind of lead and lag measures are one relatively concrete instance in which you need to take action on A in order to achieve B. I think this sort of structure shows up elsewhere, in some non-obvious places, and that it has some failure modes that are worth watching out for.

Pitfall #1: Getting too attached to the lead measure & forgetting the lag measure

On a day to day basis, what’s important is the lead measure… right? I mean, it is. But only insomuch as it affects the lag measure. Which means two things:

a) if you’ve picked a bad lead measure, pick a new one

You can know if this has happened either by noticing that you’ve increased the lead measure but the lag measure hasn’t moved when you would have expected, or by more theoretical means (realizing that you no longer trust your model for why you thought the lead measure was good).

b) beware of actions that do increase the lead measure but don’t have much of an effect on the lag measure

You may have designed the lead measure with some assumptions about how it would be achieved, and those assumptions might be vital to ensuring the lead measure does indeed affect the lag measure. They might *also* be costly.

For instance, in the salesy example, say you set a lead measure target of having all of the salespeople make 10 calls a day instead of 5. You reason that they’re only spending a few hours on the phone as it is, so they surely have time in their day to make more calls. This may be true… but what may end up happening is that the calls become shorter as other demands on their time pile up. These shorter calls might be much less effective at converting leads, resulting in a failure to improve the lag measure.

Trust and transparency: measuring a culture

One thing that my intentional learning community is optimizing for is trust, specifically “non-naïve trust”. The part about it being non-naïve is important: the point isn’t just to have everyone trusting each other because they’re supposed to trust each other. We want to create experiences of each other such that it will make sense to trust each other.

You may note that this is similar to the lead/lag measures concept above. Here our aim is trust. But like having increased annual sales, there’s no non-naïve-trust button to push. Instead, the trust is an outcome of other actions. Which actions?

Well, to some extent that’s a long and complex subject. I’ll get into it a bit further below.

What else is my community aiming for?

Transparency, honesty, openness… that general cluster. Being able to talk about anything.

The naïve way of trying to get a culture to be transparent, open, and honest, is to encourage or even insist that people be… transparent, open, and honest. There are practices like radical honesty and Crocker’s Rules that try to cut to the chase and just directly create the honesty. And they work to some extent!

…but if “being transparent/honest” is seen as a requirement for being an upstanding citizen within the context, then any absence of it will itself be concealed to avoid judgment of failure. Not just from others, but from oneself as well! If you have your identity closely linked with the idea that you’re very transparent, then that will tend to you ignoring or rationalizing any instances in which you aren’t. Even, to some extent, pretending you’re doing it. Whereas if openness is seen as a lag measure, then increased openness means “aha, the things we’ve been doing seem to be working” and decreased openness means that some factor is getting in the way. And then you can look for a causal explanation rather than a justification.

I was once in a conversation with someone from an organization that publishes books and does training on this stuff (trust & openness, etc). He remarked that they don’t seem to practice what’s in their books at their own offices. The previous paragraph explains part of my model of why this is: they can’t look clearly at their failures, due to the assumption that them being an authority on the subject means that they need to be seen as doing it right.

How do you design for the emergence of a culture of generalized trust and high quality interactions?

…asked someone (Seb Paquet I think) on Quora a few years ago (link).

Now, I’m a little wary of the term “emergence” when used as a noun, because it can sometimes be a way of explaining without explaining. But used here, in this question, it makes sense. Seb is asking not “How do you create generalized trust and high-quality interactions [directly]?” but “How do you design the circumstances in which such a culture will grow?” The former question would be a bit like asking “How do I make an onion?” It’s not technically wrong, but (unless said playfully) suggests a lack of nuance compared to asking “How do I plant, fertilize, and care for an onion plant?” Because the way one makes an onion is different from the way one makes a chair. And cultures are like onions.

This is part of my understanding of why the introduction of Tell Culture as a meme in some of my circles has been stressful. People have been trying to do the culture, rather than… design for its emergence. And I’ll be honest: I really admire the directness and intentionality of the rationalist mindset. Most people/groups wouldn’t even try to do the culture.

Anyway, growing a culture isn’t easy. My group has been working on it for over a decade (I’ve only been involved about 3 years) and while we’ve made progress it’s been slow going. I think we could have appeared to go faster by allowing ourselves to confuse pretending we’re doing it with actually doing it.

What’s the process? Well, the first part of the process is having a core group of people who are keen on cultivating this new culture of non-naïve trust. And then… you need some lead measures: things to focus on doing, rather than just outcomes to monitor to see if you’re still on track.

I can’t tell say what the best lead measures or operating principles will be for any given situation, but I can share ours. What follows is a list of commitments that all of the members of our group are practising. We also have a list of working assumptions, but I’ll talk about those some other time.

  • I commit to seeing everything that happens here as part of a learning experience.
  • I commit to listening non-judgmentally to myself and others.
  • I commit to speaking only out of and about my own personal experience and understanding. (When others speak, I recognize that it is their experience they are speaking about)
  • When faced with a choice between being curious and being defensive, I commit to being curious.
  • I commit to offering no praise, no blame, and no apologies; and to reveal, acknowledge, and appreciate instead.

We’re all holding these as intentions and knowing that the people around us share those intentions. This has the effect of giving us new experiences of ourselves and each other relating, from which emerges trust and openness.

Pitfall #2: Confusing the lead and lag measures

So we might briefly tag this as another pitfall: confusing the lead and lag measures in such a way that you go after the lag measures directly and what you end up getting is… something else. This doesn’t show up in all cases: sometimes the lag measures are obviously not directly movable: in modern secret-ballots, for instance, you can’t really just buy the votes you want. And if you could (which, in fact, used to be standard practice!) then we might argue that you’ve kind of broken the democratic system.

Another confusion could be the opposite: you think that the lead measure is the lag measure, and you think “aha, I’ve succeeded, I’m doing NVC” (“Nonviolent Communication”, a set of practices for how to communicate) but you’ve gotten overmuch focused on the specific phrasings and you’ve forgotten the point, which is to communicate nonviolently.

Or consider the time I tried to hug a hundred people in airports. I deliberately made my success count be “number of offers” rather than “number of hugs” because I didn’t want the feeling of desperation that would come from needing people to say yes. And, I did pay attention to “how many hugs does this approach seem to be getting?” as a measurement of how well my particular script etc was working.


The main thesis of this post is that it’s worth being smart about what you’re aiming for. Have both lead and lag measures, and make sure they make sense. Make sure that the lag measure is something important, that the lead measure will indeed achieve it, and that the lead measure is a needle you can reach out and move. (If you’re interested in learning more about this (especially for business contexts) I heartily recommend The 4 Disciplines of Execution (I can vouch for the audiobook for this one))

The other takeaway of course is that culture-crafting is complex.

See also:
Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard: a book about measurement in general: what it is (“a quantified reduction in uncertainty) why it’s important, and how to do it. Here I recommend against the audiobook, because you won’t be able to read the charts or make sense of large numbers when they’re just stated aloud digit by digit.

I was originally going to call this “things you can’t optimize for directly”, but I thought that the metaphoric name would be more evocative.
a pinching hand overlaid on top of an image of a VU meter

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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