“You cannot drive what you cannot measure”. This common sense saying is present in many management books and applied across many organizations. Defining a target and measuring the constant progress against it, is meant to play some kind of magic and helps reach the expected result. This is the “forcing mechanism” theory.

Unfortunately, it is often hard to illustrate the accuracy of this management principle. There are not that many obvious examples, allowing a fair and objective representation of this pattern.

There is actually a good “food for thoughts” case, with the latest Fitbit Paris Half Marathon (as it is officially called). Out of the 45k runners registered to this event (the largest French half marathon by the way), 36k officially crossed the finish line last week-end.

Unlike Forrest Gump, who was running just for the sake of running, the participants tend to have specific sources of motivation to run those 21km (and pay the underlying 60€). If many runners are participating just to enjoy the event, for many others, the race tends to be an individual time trial. Many participants are running against the clock to beat a target, whether it is a personal record or a psychological milestone (getting under 1h30, 1h45, …). In order to meet this goal, most of the runners are equipped with GPS watches and are tracking their real-time performance (time per kilometer versus expectation). The organization is also kindly providing some support, as some official pacemakers (very visible with their balloons) are helping people meet their goals.

When looking at the latest results, we see that the high-level distribution of the performance (number of runners by measured time) looks like a nice Gauss curve, with a peak around 1h50.

When looking more deeply into the data, the distribution appears to be influenced by the psychological milestones. For instance, there is a clear peak of runners reaching the finish line in 1h29, and then a drop for 1h30. The same pattern applies for all the other main milestones (1h35, 1h45, 2h), as the chart below evidences it. This means many runners are actually doing an extra effort, to get below a symbolic mark.

To conclude, setting-up a quantitative target and tracking the progress against it, is definitely the right way to reach an expected level of performance. As it is the case for a runner, who will accelerate its pace in the last kilometers to break a milestone, a company will boost its efforts to deliver a project on time or to reach an expected level of sales. Nevertheless, there are of course two caveats. The runner – and the company – will need to set a fair target, not to get out of gas and completely miss the expectations. Second, the measurement system should be an enabler, not a distraction. Runners addicted to their GPS devices might forget to listen their body signals. And companies obsessed with their internal KPIs may lose sight of their customers and competitors.

Having said that, enjoy your next run!