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On the phenomenon of hidden KPIs

Hidden KPIs are the Key Performance Indicators that your organization uses to measure success … without explicit acknowledgement. Your success depends on your ability to detect them, meet them, and (just maybe) change them.


Since setting goals and measuring success is hard, plenty of companies will have measurable goals that don’t fully capture their activities and priorities. (For example, during Q2 goal setting, you simply neglected to set an explicit target for client retention - but of course client retention remains a priority.) This is completely forgivable and will improve with time.

A sadly common occurrence is in an organization that has no measurable goals or standards. In this environment, every KPI is a hidden KPI.

Are you due a raise or promotion? Does your testing program merit a budget increase for a part time frontend developer, so you can build fancier tests? This decision will be made based on someone’s opinion, or mood, and their decision making process will be obscure to you. Good luck!

The most pathological case is the org where the ultimate hidden KPI is “making the boss feel good.” How people feel about working with you will always be important, and you should be aware of it. But if you’re spending 40 hours a week placating somebody’s fragile ego, I hope you’re looking for what’s next.

Why they’re important

Even in a healthy organization, there are hidden KPIs. If you focus only on the explicit ones, you won’t get as far as you deserve.

You want to run a successful experimentation program; you want upper management to buy in; you want the whole company to be excited about what you’re doing. You might also want to grow your team and budget. Most likely, getting amazing results is only part of reaching that goal.

What to do

Start by evaluating goals and benchmarks across the entire company. Where do you notice people and programs that are celebrated, funded, expanding, or showered with attention from the CEO, despite not necessarily meeting their goals? (Or despite meeting goals that are underwhelming?)

What is it about these teams (or team members) that earns them this status? How was the decision to increase their budget made, if not based on hard numbers? You can’t know this, but take a good guess and trust your instincts. Do they work overtime? Attend a lot of social events? Own a crucial piece of functionality? Share their efforts in a more compelling way? Golf with somebody?

Over the next few days, we’ll look at some common hidden KPIs and how they impact an optimization program - and what to do if they’re at play in your company. In the meantime, if you’re already aware of any hidden KPIs, please hit Reply and share! You’re not the only person dealing with this.

    © 2024 Brian David Hall