Signals are just as important as indicators

Posted on May 4, 2021

As a runner I am very used to setting goals and tracking my progress towards them. With the rise of fitness watches and apps like Strava I have more information available than ever. Some of this information provides key indicators which relate to my goals.

Yet not all information provides a measure of performance. Sometimes it is nothing more than a weak hint towards more complex things. If you become overly focused on your performance indicators then these signals are easily overlooked. Whether your goals are athletic or business the consequences can be disastrous.

This is what happened to me in 2015. All my performance indicators pointed to a personal best and a sub-three hour marathon. Then a couple of months before the event I had to bail out due to an injury. It took over two years to fully return to form. When I look back, all the signals were there. Why did I ignore them?

Setting goals and targets

Goal setting for runners isn’t too different from organisational goals. I generally set my sights on a future point and give myself an ambitious performance target. This might be a sub-20 5k or a sub-3 hour marathon. These performance goals are my lagging indicators.

I then take my goals but rather than a strategic business plan, I design a training plan which track different key indicators with milestones which are more immediately in my control. These are my leading indicators. For example, when running a marathon I focus on improving my endurance. I can measure this through my overall weekly distance because and slowly increasing it until I hit an optimum amount (about 100km). If I am after a good 5k I will swap milage for speed and instead I will focus on intervals. This gives me short term aims such as “increase weekly distance from 40km to 50km in four weeks” or “improve average 800m interval time from 4:00 to 3:50”.

I also have a collection of other leading indicators I know affect performance such as my optimal weight.

By creating a training plan which focuses on these leading indicators I can feel confident that I am making progress towards my goals and if I’m not then I can make the necessary adjustments.

This isn’t too different from organisational metrics where a lagging indicator might be Revenue but you focus the business on something more near term like “number of customer referrals”.

Performance Indicators alone will mislead

This is exactly what I did in 2015. I was tracking both my distance and speed indicators and, if anything, was slightly ahead of plan. I was looking forward to the event with confidence. Then one day disaster struck when less than two kilometres into my run I experienced an agonising pain in my right knee.

I rested for a few days but when I tried to return to running the pain came back. So I rested longer and tried again. Same thing. Then the pain got worse, spreading to my lower back. Eventually I was diagnosed with a knee bursitis and sciatica. A deadly combination which took two years to fully eradicate.

Signals can be warnings

The purpose of this post is not to share details of my injury or garner sympathy. The point is that athletes, like organisations, face threats and these threats aren’t always external, from your competition. The greatest threats are often internal and caused by your own decision making. For athletes this is injury. The same is true for organisations.

My poor decision making was obvious with hindsight. All the signs were there. I just ignored them because I was too focused on my indicators. For two years I kicked myself for my foolishness.

Here’s a simple example. The first thing my physio did was put me on a running machine and then made me balance on each leg. Straight away they said “when you run your right leg sweeps outwards. Your left leg is overdeveloped whilst key muscles in your right leg have atrophied”. My glutes and quads had lost strength, and other muscles were compensating. This was putting my biomechanics off, causing too much movement in my hip and knee.

Also, I had lost flexibility in my hips. This tightening was affecting my biomechanics. The two were in a vicious loop. Tight hips caused my body to compensate which lead to poor muscle development which lead to tighter hips.

To add insult to injury my physio told me that this was entirely predictable. Ninety percent of their patients are being treated for injuries from similar causes. I pointed out I had ten years of experience and hadn’t suffered any problems before. To which they simply replied “you got lucky”.

There was nothing in any of the indicators I use for my goals that told me this. Despite being one the single most significant factor preventing my success. Worse than that my indicators where giving me a false sense of security as I over reached them.

Yet, what the physio told me made perfect sense. The pain had actually started in my hip, several weeks before, not in my knee. And even before that I had lost a lot of flexibility in my legs. These were weaker signals both of which I ignored. I’m used to mild pain during training so I dismissed them with a simple heuristic mis-categorising them as usual training aches. I had also noticed the difference size of my quads, but again, had ignored that too. My wife had even committed on how I was walking strange.

Eventually these weak signals developed into strong ones: debilitating pain in my knee.

Act on weaker signals

I realised that understanding threats and how to spot weaker signals and act on them before they become strong was critical to long term success. This is true in business and software development. With such a focus on short term results we need to keep a careful eye on signals which may pose a future threat.

Injury and over training are two key threats to an athlete’s performance. A strong signal of overtraining is fatigue. This is measurable through my heart rate and shows up when I struggle to push into higher zones. By this point I know I have overtrained and performance has already suffered.

To prevent reaching that point I look for a weaker signal which I can act on earlier. If I notice that too many sessions have been in high heart rate zones, and not enough in lower zones, then I can easily predict where I will end up. I can take immediate action.

Spotting the weaker signals prompts a decision. This is true in organisations too. We can see relationships between weak signals like customer queries for issues which, overtime might turn into stronger signals such as customer complaints. Weaker signals such as employee motivation or engagement might turn into attrition.

The same is true in software development teams where we may look at things like code complexity as a weak signal of defects. If we can spot the weaker signals, and act on them, we can prevent them becoming stronger.

Turn signals into preventative measures

Keeping an eye on signals is one thing. But once cause and effect are established it is more useful to add preventative practices by “shifting left”. Rather than waiting for injury signals to appear and then take action I do targeted stretching and strength training and incorporate these into my training plan. To avoid overtraining I add in rest days and weeks. These are both measurable and form leading indicators against injury and overtraining.

To achieve this I’ve essentially added new objectives. “Stay injury free” and “Maintain good physical energy”. Again, these are measurable. And my practices contribute to achieving those outcomes.

As a side-effect, now I have those outcomes I am much more attuned to any weak signals which might hint that I am missing something.

The same is true in business. We can define objective which describe the business running in a healthy state and listen to the signals.

In software development we also know which signals indicate a healthy team. Whether that is ease of deployment, levels of technical debt, de-coupled architecture, time spent on manual tasks. All of these things are weak signals which, if left, turn into strong ones which threaten the teams ability to deliver.

Lastly, having an outcome doesn’t mean that I assume all signals are now captured as part of a new indicator. I still need to stay tuned to my body and how it is responding to the training schedule. This includes external factors which can affect my training (like weather or social events). Some can’t be measured by a device (like pain or feelings of positivity) but some can. For example, I look at trends in my heart rate. By correlating it with my pace I can quickly spot signs that I might be over training.

By using both indicators and signals I become a better runner. And a better leader too. Signals can come from many places and inform many different things. By helping teams become attuned to them and understand how to act on them we can all improve our performance.