If you’ve ever wondered how to get your kids to pay attention, eat their vegetables. or do chores, download NPR’s series called “How to Raise a Human.”  It’s full of great research-based advice gleaned from dozens of interviews with parents and scientists around the world. The most intriguing offers some great advice from Mayan mothers. (See “Secrets Of A Maya Supermom: What Parenting Books Don’t Tell You.”)

They got me thinking about measurement… It’s generally the last thing most communicators want to pay attention to. It’s the grown-up communicator’s equivalent of taking out the garbage or eating broccoli. (Of course that makes AVEs and impressions the communications equivalent of Cap’n Crunch and Pop-Tarts, but more on that later.)

So what might happen if we took the Mayan moms’ approach to parenting and applied it to measurement? Some great lessons, as it turns out. Here we go:

Lesson 1: Let teams set their own goals.

When you assign someone a goal, they stop paying attention to anything else. That’s the whole theory behind “you become what you measure.” If you measure your performance by number of placements or column inches, then you team is going to focus only on placements or column inches and they will ignore what really matters: the bottom line.

When researchers gave children the freedom to decide what they wanted to do, it turned out that they wanted to do what their mothers and grandmothers did. And when they saw their mothers and grandmothers taking care of chickens or doing the laundry, the kids wanted to help.

So rather than set communications performance goals based on activities—like how many press releases you put out—gather your teams and let them decide what goals would help them reach your overall organizational objectives.

Take one of my clients for example. Their initial goal was “protect and promote our reputation for sustainability.” I asked them what for? Why did a reputation for sustainability matter? It turns out that it’s critical to attracting new talent and keeping institutional investors happy.  So the point wasn’t just “push out more messages about sustainability.” It was ensuring that the “sustainability message” was in everything that potential talent and the institutional investors saw. Thus the goal they came up with was: “Increase in the percentage of earned and owned content that contained one or more sustainability  messages.”

And then someone pointed out the obvious: The company “owns” the content, so why wouldn’t 100% of it contain the key messages? To which several people replied that most of the myriad of things they were requested to write or edit or publish had nothing to do with those messages. They were someone’s pet project, or someone up high wanted it done for no good reason. So then the metric became “Reduce the percentage of content that does not contain the key messages.” As a result, the team chose to spend more time on things that would advance the organization’s goals.

Lesson 2: Be the change you wish to see in your teams.

If you want to bring effective communications measurement into your organization, you need to demonstrate your own affection for, and commitment to, measurement every day. (My apologies to Mahatma Gandhi.)

The way to get kids to eat everything, according to the experts, is to never purchase “kids’ food.” In many cultures, as soon as the child can eat solid food, they are fed whatever the rest of the family is eating. Mashed up at first, but the flavor and nutrition are the same.

The same should be true in communications measurement. Never accept whatever junk food numbers are spit out by whatever vendor you happen to be using just because it’s easy. That’s the equivalent of feeding your kids Pop-Tarts for dinner every night. Sure it gets the kids to eat something, but it’s not a healthy diet.

Instead, have a team discussion. Go over the business goals and the metrics that the department is expected to present to the CEO and/or the board. Then brainstorm about what metrics would demonstrate the team’s contribution to those high-level goals. They might be direct, e.g., conversions on a website, or they might “acceptable proxies,” such as a bespoke engagement index or a media quality score. Either way, once you’ve decided on solid healthy metrics, make sure that McNuggets are never again allowed in any reporting.

Lesson 3: Make measurement important for everyone, not just the “big kids.”

Toddlers in Mayan culture start helping out around the house as soon as they can walk. If you’re dealing with toddlers, a lot of that “help” means that the mess becomes bigger or the chores take longer. But the point is that every baby is born with an innate sense of wanting to help mom, and they should be encouraged to do exactly that, even it it means that messes sometimes get bigger or chores take longer. For Mayan moms, that early extra time and effort is worth instilling the willingness to do chores later on. Sadly, in most Western cultures. parents say, “Go play, it’s faster if I just do it myself.” And so their kids quickly learn that someone else will do stuff for them if they just make a big enough fuss.

Communications measurement suffers a similar fate in most organizations. It’s seen as too complicated for the average communications pro. Rather than making measurement part of everyday life, it’s something to do after the project is over. Or, worse still, something that is farmed out to “someone else”: a vendor, intern, or the new kid. Then, because the metrics arrive in a pre-packaged PowerPoint once a month, they have little relevance to the team.

What if, rather than delegate the process to your resident nerd, every team was expected to produce its own measurement report? If even the newest newbie helped out in some small but meaningful way?

That “newbie” would learn that measurement is important, and meaningful, and offers an opportunity to hang out with the “adults,” i.e., leadership. More importantly, the more people that participate in the measurement process, the better the analysis and recommendations for improvement will be.

Finally, if measurement is not part of daily life then it becomes an odious chore, and a ruler to be beaten with at the end of the quarter. In great communications departments, measurement serves as a continuous improvement tool, and has a continuous presence.

The lesson to learn from all these stretched metaphors is, as any communications professional will tell you, if a person can’t see what’s in it for them, they don’t care. So the way to convince your team to do and love measurement is to demonstrate what’s in it for them: insight, efficiency, team building, and doing less of the stupid stuff. ∞

(Thanks to Adam Foster on Flickr for the image.)

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