Pick a Needle and Move It

Employees have one job: move needles.

geckoboardCompany executives track their most important metrics using dashboard graphs like the example at right from Geckoboard.  The VP of Sales, the Chief Financial Officer, the Board of Directors, or anybody else with a fancypants title can all name their top 2-3 key metrics, what the numbers are today, and where they need to be.

Your job – no matter what you think your job title is – boils down to these 6 things:

1. Figure out who you need to impress.  If you’re just getting started with this technique, odds are your direct manager doesn’t actually have any needles set up yet.  You might have to leapfrog several people to pull this off.  I’ve just grabbed people after a status meeting and said, “Hey, I’m sure you’re busy. Can I walk with you to your next meeting and ask you an easy question? Great, thanks.”

2. Find out what their needles measure.  While you’re walking with them, ask, “What are the 2-3 key metrics that mean the most to your department?”  Memorize them, repeat them back to confirm that you understood their names, and then thank them profusely for their time.  Don’t ask how the number is calculated unless you’ve got a really long walk with them – you want to show that you value their time, and you’ll do the research yourself.

3. Find out how to move one of the needles.  Do some Googling to understand how the metrics are calculated.  Write out the full definition, and if possible, try calculating the value yourself.  Does the company have any dashboard or reporting systems that show the needle?  How often are they updated?  How have they been trending lately?

4. Move one of the needles.  This one step has whole books written about it, and I won’t explain that here.  Make the magic happen.  Don’t think “this needle isn’t my job” – it may not be written in your job description, but if you move the right needles, you get raises and bonuses.

5. Prove that you moved it.  Document what you did to move the needle and the effect it had.  For example, at one point, my boss’s boss was starting to freak out about the number of rack spaces left in the datacenter.  If he couldn’t get that needle under control, we faced a very large expenditure to add datacenter space, and that would have moved a whole bunch of needles in the wrong direction.  I undertook a SQL Server consolidation project to cut the number of servers we had in the datacenter, and every time I pulled a server out, I took a picture of our team joyously removing it.

6. Share the proof with the person from #1.  It ain’t bragging if you can prove it.  When my consolidation project finished, I wrote a PowerPoint presentation to the executive showing how I’d personally increased the number of available rack spaces by X%.  That presentation got forwarded around to other executives and departments, and I was lauded as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  My manager thanked me for being able to translate business needs into IT tasks and delivering value.  Blah blah blah, right?

Remember – every day, you’re already making one needle worse: salary costs.  While you’re patting yourself on the back for meaningless busywork, other people are tracking the year-to-date salary needles.  Every day, that needle raises.  Make sure you’re changing enough other needles to justify that metric, or else you’ll find someone fixing the salary needle problem.

If you find yourself learning things just out of curiosity or to do an even better job of what you’re already tasked with, then that’s a good sign that you’re too comfortable as an employee.  Us IT people are really susceptible to the “ooo-look-a-shiny-new-incremental-improvement” syndrome.  We focus on polishing our skills just a little bit more, sharpening our knives, and making ourselves 10% more efficient.

In many shops, your boss (and your boss’s boss) don’t need you to be any more efficient.  They don’t measure your efficiency, and you’re not really going to influence the IT human resources cost needle.  If you can suddenly manage 10% more servers with your snappy script, they’re not going to lay off 10% of the staff, and they’re not going to magically create 10% more servers just because you’re more capable.  They’re going to give you more servers when they need to, whether you’re ready or not, and they’re not going to reward you based on your effectiveness with those servers.  (This is why I get so frustrated with the “drop everything and learn PowerShell” guys – they’re not usually moving business needles unless they work in 1,000-server shops.)

The needles I see IT executives staring at most often are IT hardware, licensing, and hosting costs.  If your management has been making noises about the cloud, it’s because they’re finally hearing an interesting solution that might move business needles.  Sure, you might not think it’s the RIGHT solution, but the ball’s in your court.  I bet you’ve got better ideas on how to consolidate servers, virtualize old ones, switch to cheaper licenses for expensive products, and other ways to easily save money.

You think they won’t listen to you, but you’re wrong.  They will, but you have to use the same techniques outside vendors use in order to get your point across.  Build a PowerPoint deck talking about how your idea can save the company money.  Get a meeting with people who can pull the trigger.  Act like a vendor, but instead of handing over a check to some stranger in a suit, you want them to hand authority to you – and maybe even a bonus afterward.

It’s time for you to pick a needle and move it.

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5 Comments. Leave new

Good advice, and mostly true. I might not phrase it as who I need to impress, but more who I need to please. Then again, I’m not looking to move up the ladder most of the time, but rather do a good job, and prove I’m doing a good job.

A good job means what you’ve noted, however. I need to move needles and be effective for the business. Not do what I think is important.


I love these amazing employee strategy posts just like I loved the consulting post series.


This is a hard one for us IT geeks. Much easier for us to focus on moving a needle on query performance than the sometimes esoteric yet important goals of the company.


I do love this article! I would however like to add an additional perspective.

I am a BI consultant and practice lead so i deal with performance metrics on an almost daily basis. I am [no longer] surprised by how many companies we work with that simply dont have a good idea of what their key metrics should be! Its easy to report on actuals, but meaningful targets are often lacking.


[…] Pick a Needle and Move It – Quit focusing on fragmentation and start paying attention to what the business users want. […]


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