Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Meter: Tom Giib's greatest invention

If you’ve ever found the time to read Tom Gilb’s work - and I’m thinking specifically of Competitive Engineering here - you’ll know that his work is packed full of good ideas. So many god ideas in fact that it can be hard to read his book - something I think he admits himself in the opening pages of Competitive Engineering.

One of his ideas is that of a Meter. This alway confuses me a little, still now...

You: A Metre you say?
Me: No, not a metric unit of distance, a Meter, as in a Gas Meter
You: What, how can a Gas Meter help software teams?
Me: No, the idea of measuring things, scrum that, say a Ruler
You: A ruler? Centimeters and inches?
Me: No, A yard stick
You: Distance again?
Me: No, A unit of measurement and a tool for measuring
You: Measuring what?
Me: Yes, Measuring what, that’s Tom’s great invention, we need to define measuring systems

Tom’s great invention is: define a mechanism for measuring the thing which is important to you.

OK, Tom takes the idea further with Plangauge he says we should define the meter, the starting value and the desired value. But forget values, its the measurement unit itself which I think is too frequently overlooked and worth more attention.

The thing is, the unit of measurement, and the means of measuring it is implicit in a lot of work: its in Kaplan & Norton’s Balanced Scorecard, its in Beyond Budgeting, its in Lean Start-Up and elsewhere.

But, as far as I know, only Tom calls the Meter out as an idea in its own right. In fact, I suspect Tom might not have realised the significance of this.

Once you know what the right Meter is it becomes - relatively - easy to measure things. So you can measure the starting point, you can set a target, and you can measure how far you have got.

We are surrounded my measurement units and meters which already exist
  • Currency: Pounds, Dollars, Euros, etc. etc. - and the associated profit, revenue, costs, etc. etc.
  • Accounts: Profit, revenue, costs
  • Website hits: visitors, unique hits, conversions, etc. etc.
  • Time: second, minutes, days....
  • Distance: inches, miles, centimetres, meters and kilometres
  • Location: Latitude and Longitude
  • Weight:.....
And we tend to use these measuring units again and their associated meters again and again.

New meters are not so common but they occur, e.g. Eric Ries in Lean Start-Up introduces a new meter: Cohort Analysis.

But - big but - if we use inappropriate measuring units and meters it gets hard, and it potentially gets wrong. (Another on of Eric’s points.)

Again, as far as I know, Tom is the only authority who says: define your own unit and define your own way of measuring it.

Now, as far as I can tell Tom is a master of this, the rest of us... well most people don’t get it and try and use pre-defined measurements and Meters, even those of us who “get it” struggle with it.

So, we need to start inventing new units of measurement and new ways of measuring things. We need to get good at both inventing these things and sharing them. History shows many of these measuring units are useful to other people.

Second, as more of these units are recognised then we will have more mechanisms - and language - with which to implement both our own tools and the tools like Balanced Score Card and Lean Startup.


  1. Hi Alan - If you don't know of it already you may like "How To Measure Anything" by Douglas Hubbard.
    He takes the idea that some things "can't be measured" and argues that everything can. I often come across teams that say they cannot measure something when usually they can by looking at the problem more obliquely. Sometimes that's not the best measure and that often comes down to systems analysis and engaging the Business in agreeing to record the real metrics they are interested in: the ones that will not only help operate the Business but make the right decisions to transform it in the future.

  2. Thanks Sid, I've added it to my "must read" list


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