I’ve long said that no-one really knows what knowledge work looks like. It’s easy to see whether or not someone is digging a hole in the ground, but it’s much more difficult to see whether the work that someone is doing on a computer is ‘productive’.

This is, I think, partly because ‘productivity’ is something that is best thought about for things that can be systematised and made routine. A lot of knowledge work is fundamentally creative, and so quantitative metrics are meaningless. Who cares if you’ve made a million pull requests if they’re all to change a single character?

This article discusses the complexities of assessing productivity in various fields, the issues with current interviewing processes, and suggests that future evaluations may become more tied to tangible accomplishments rather than arbitrary metrics. That’s presupposing, of course, that hierarchical evaluations are even necessary.

[E]very potential metric we devise appears woefully inadequate in assessing this holistic outcome. Whether it's pull requests, lines of code, user stories, story points, or ship dates, it seems that every metric can be manipulated or gamed. Ship dates may be advanced, but quality suffers; story points morph in size depending on the project, and lines of code can be bulked up with a test suite. Even pull requests can be sliced and diced to skew the numbers. It's a frustrating conundrum.

For more fuzzy fields, like product management or marketing or design, it becomes even more hand-wavey. Some fields tend to depend on getting other roles to execute better, but you can’t go rewind history and try things with a different PM to see if things would have been better. Same with design.


If you give the most productive employee more work, presumably they’d be justified in asking for higher compensation? After all, they are driving greater outcomes for you. Would you be comfortable paying it?

For example, would you pay a 3x more productive designer 3x the fully loaded cost of the average designer? If 10x engineers truly exist, why do pay scales intra company not cover a 10x spectrum?


My suspicion is that, like in other fields where performance matters and is financially rewarded, there will be a surge in our capacity to measure and evaluate real-life work performance. Compensation will become more closely tied to tangible accomplishments rather than arbitrary levels or seniority. Interviews will transition to be more real-world scenarios, perhaps within the customer’s actual codebase, addressing a genuine problem the customer faces—possibly even compensating the interviewee for their time.

Source: Why is it so hard to measure productivity? | fractional.work

Image: Kelly Sikkema