What Exactly Are We Measuring?

Last week, I came upon the Wired Business Conference during some late-night channel surfing.  I likely would have kept surfing yet there sat Marissa Mayer (a la Yahoo) speaking with a journalist during a sit-down interview. While I clearly tuned in midway through the conversation, it was time enough to hear at least part of a discussion about her decision to end telecommuting for employees.  Yes, I know this issue has been discussed ad nauseum, but bear with me for a minute.

Stating yet again that it was the right decision for Yahoo and that the response from employees has been positive (sorry...but I'd like to see the data on this), she said:

“People are more productive when they work alone, but more collaborative and innovate when they work together."

I sat up and said aloud, "What did she say?"  Doing some verbal mediation, I said aloud, wait...people are "more productive" when they work alone?  That sounds a lot like telecommuting to me, I thought, so if the goal in business is to measure productivity, doesn't her decision then run counterintuitive to the goal?

Yes, I know innovation and creativity are the driving forces behind everything new...ideas, processes, systems.  Yet if a business is framing their operations on, let's say, innovation, and people are developing all kinds of great ideas, how then does productivity against these new ideas occur?

It seems to me that business - including Yahoo - needs to clearly define how they are measuring success and then how they plan to achieve it.  There's no question that many teams, by pooling their thinking and expertise, create innovation every day in the workplace.  There's also no question that bringing that innovation into practice - the real, daily work - is often best achieved by individuals having the flexibility to do the work where they wish and without many of the "traditional" constraints that some organizations still seem to believe are applicable today.

The business world, and the people who comprise it, are far different today than they were 25 years ago.  Technology allows for productivity (and creativity) to occur anywhere and anytime.  It allows someone sitting in a coffee shop to figure out a solution to a problem or someone quietly sitting in their living room after their toddler is in for a nap to develop a new process.

It's wrong and backward-facing to assume that innovation can only occur, or occurs best, when people are face-to-face.  Not only are there practical concerns including commuting, costs for childcare, and a host of other factors that create issues for employees, but many people struggle in a socially-charged work environment where their creativity and productivity suffer.  Distractions, personality conflicts, and environmental issues are just part of the challenges often overlooked.

Organizations need to not only recognize how innovation, creativity, and productivity really occur, but to understand that a diverse workforce means that a "one size fits all" approach simply doesn't work.   Every business uses a different yardstick to measure success, yet I would venture to say that each uses their bottom-line to determine whether results are being achieved.

Every business has pain.  Something that's not working, something that needs assessing, something that needs to be changed.  And it takes leadership (and guts) to institute change.  But stating in one breath that employees are more productive working alone yet in the next breath that no...they can no longer do so, does little to ease the pain.

A creative idea is only as good as its execution, and execution requires productivity...and flexibility.  So maybe Yahoo should be providing employees with the option to create together, not only at the office but at a local diner or in someone's dining room - and to allow them to produce alone if they so choose.  Measuring business success takes far more than glaring at the bottom-line and watching the numbers climb upward ... it takes understanding just who gets them there and how.