Output, Results, and Things That Are Difficult to Measure

This is a brainstorm rather than a well thought out (or thought out at-all) blog post. I briefly considered a tweet stream, but wanted to give my few followers a break.

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about what it means to be productive on a software team – or how that productivity is viewed, tracked, or measured. I’m not going to dive into performance reviews, as those have a lot more moving parts and dynamics – but just the general view of how we view result – or output from any individual, and any organization.

Traditionally, “output” is a bullet point list of things-you-did. This is output – or production. It’s certainly measurable, and if someone has no output or results, there’s likely an issue. But there’s another kind of output that doesn’t get talked about enough. What about the person who makes other people better? The person who coaches, mentors, and finds ways to make people around them productive?

Jessica Kerr, calls this attribute ‘generativity’

I like the term, and have begun using it recently…which is probably why I’ve been thinking more about this over the past few days.

Some points to consider (and potentially discuss):

  • Output is linear. I can produce 0 things, and I can produce n things. More things == more production. (Note that all produced things are not equal).
  • Generativity can be positive or negative. I can help the team achieve more than the sum of their parts, or I can be an asshole and hold everyone back.
  • You can be both Generative and Productive. While you can be Productive without being generative, I don’t know that it’s a good thing to be Generative and not Productive. More on this below the bullets.
  • Generativity requires leadership – this means that generative people tend to be more experienced (and that less experienced people may focus entirely on output).
  • For those who care about measuring, Productivity is much easier to measure than Generativity.

I don’t know of a system that’s done a decent job figuring out how to measure the non-tangible output (Generativity) of team members. I’ve seen highly generative (IMO) people viewed poorly because their output was difficult to measure (which is why I included the third bullet above), but I think generative people are critical for success in most teams. Of course, the best generative people I know also produce some measurable results as well, so perhaps that combination is necessary.


  1. If you don’t know what to measure how do you know what behaviors to promote? They’re the same, right?

    Related topic: I think that Fredrick Winslow Taylor tried to measure the wrong things. That explains how he was badly received.

    Another related topic: I think Edwards Deming had success with continuous feedback about how the system was behaving instead of minutia (and even called out things like performance reviews as a sin).

    I don’t have the answers you want but I thought shaking the cage a little and tossing in related ideas might inspire you to where you’d like to go.

    Also, unrelated: “negative generativity” sounds like stopping the line in lean manufacturing. I don’t think it’s so bad in that context.

    1. I think you can promote behaviors without measuring. I.e. I can praise your work (thus promoting it) without measuring (or counting) how many times you do praiseworthy work.

      1. Peter Drucker said “what’s measured improves” and I think he’d argue that you’re measuring in that scenario even if you’re not keeping track of the results. It can be measurement even if you don’t put a number on it and I assume you determine what’s praiseworthy somehow rather than just praising everything, right?

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