How to Design a Useful Yardstick

45254.JPGInstant proverb of the day:

You are what you count.

Many of the talent hotbeds I visited for the book don’t rely on conventional performance yardsticks. Instead, they design their own.

The other day I met Graham Walker and Steve Robinson, who coach many of England’s fast-rising crop of junior golfers. Their most important teaching tool? A long piece of rope, which they use to mark off distances for accuracy-improving games they’ve designed. For instance, players make a series of wedge shots from 10, 20, and 30 yards, marking each result on specially designed scorecards.

Or there’s the technique of Pinchas Zuckerman, the great Israeli violinist, whose practice method consisted of a two jars and a bunch of marbles. Each time he played a piece perfectly, Zuckerman transferred a single marble from one jar to the other. When the second jar was full, he was ready.

In both cases, the strategy is the same: to realize that conventional measures (scoreboards, for instance, or hours of practice time) are far too loose and vague, while homemade yardsticks connect to real practice goals — improving accuracy or perfect repetition. All well-designed yardsticks share a few common features:

  • Clarity. There are no gray areas; just cool, inarguable, trackable numbers.
  • Stretchiness. A well-designed yardstick can accomodate a variety of abilities, and there’s an improvement ladder implicitly built in.
  • Ownability. Feedback is direct, not filtered through a higher authority.

It’s not just what you keep track of — it’s also what you don’t keep track of. Unlike virtually every other company in the world,  dot-com shoe company Zappos doesn’t keep track of how long its employees talk to each customer. Instead, it actively encourages its employees to spend as much phone time as they need to make their customers happy — even to the point of helping arrange a pizza delivery to a hungry customer. The longest call so far? Four hours.