Once, sitting around a table, back in the corporate world, I was one of a bunch of people looking at the recent changes in the performance of the business. As there were big changes occurring we were all interested. However, it slowly became clear that of the same measures we always used to manage the business, no two people in the room had the same understanding of what they were measuring!

In truth when everything felt like things were going well all were happy but when things seemly pointed the other way then we all wanted to know why. Then we looked properly at them for the first time.  The reality was, while we did have measures, it was more the feel we had that was used to manage the business.

That is not as bad a way as it sounds but real measures should truly help fine tune that feeling. A test of a real measure is one that, firstly, you actually want to know what it is, and secondly action follows from knowing.

When it comes to social businesses there is a lot of interesting stuff about measuring impact. People talk of things such as double bottom lines, treble bottom lines and all sorts of grid style measures.  In the whirlwind of running such a business this will not seem vaguely connected with the reality you are dealing with. And this is the next fact about measures – they change depending on the audience and purpose they serve.

In the day to day running of the business there are usually a small few things that tell you how it is going. If it is much more than three it can be hard to respond. This works well in the basic operation of the daily grind of the business.

However, every now and then, say monthly, what you need to be able to do is find time to sit back and see how the overall business is going. While the daily measures help this happen, the measures you look at now are different – more in keeping with judging the overall health of the business,  the social impact its having, and how you are bearing up. The hardest part in this is not the measures but fining the time to reflect on them – if you can’t, then the reality will be that the business is starting to run you.

As for the double/triple bottom lines etc., they also have their place. However these are more about measures to help you tell your story externally, to influence policy, gain funding or some other reason.

So there are no right measures for a business as there are different measures required at different times depending on the purpose and audience. And while we all manage by feeling far more than we admit,  real measures do help inform those feelings –  measures that make us contemplate action.