taking a walk: measuring things that matter

On Thursday morning, I found myself on a treadmill walking a mile. Walking is something I do every morning. Though I prefer to walk outside, the cityscape around me was unfamiliar and unkind to pedestrians. I had spent the night in a hotel right outside Chicago O’Hare airport, a consequence of pilot life. I jumped on the treadmill, one foot on each side straddling the belt, while I pressed the quick start button and tapped the speed until it read 3.0 mph.

As I started walking I searched the screen and the controls, looking for the elapsed time readout. Eventually I found it–just over nineteen minutes left to go. The seconds ticked by like minutes. I can’t stand walking on a treadmill, and it always seems to take forever. I would rather walk for half a mile, away from my hotel, and retrace my steps. Sometimes in the absence of accurate distance measurements, I walk for ten minutes before turning around and retracing my steps.

I don’t normally time myself when I walk. Usually, I follow a predetermined route through my neighborhood walking down the street I live on, turning down into each cul-de-sac, and then retracing my steps. I do not use a timer or stopwatch, and I also don’t measure the distance. I’ve measured this route before, and I know it is a mile long. I can mark my progress by the passing of certain landmarks. This is the kind of navigation that most of us are familiar with. We have grown accustomed to a certain route we drive and even one or two alternates, allowing us to drive automatically, without thinking. The landmarks give us more than distance, because they also provide a sense of direction. They free up cognitive bandwidth, making the task of navigating seem easier, allowing the mind to do other things as we go.

Each of these scenarios implicitly presents three kinds of quantitative data: distance, rate (or speed), and time. They also reveal a natural human tendency, to substitute landmarks, spatial and visual references, for the quantitative data that we cannot measure without specific instruments. When the route is familiar, we may not need quantitative metrics to determine our progress. But in leadership, in an environment fraught with uncertainty and complexity, measuring the things that matter may be the only way to know we are moving forward.

In order to lead people, in an organization or team, somewhere they have never been, we have to be ready to leave the familiar behind.

Life is a journey. And these are observations from ours.


You’ve just read observations, a column that illustrates in my personal life and leadership the technical concepts found in ATOMs.

Maps help leaders describe the destination and chart a course to the future.

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