There's no bigger cliché in startup land today than the office dashboard--a giant, flatscreen, 4K monitor prominently mounted by the front door, flickering with data points that affirm how this company is killing it by every conceivable measure. I confess I'm a sucker for these dashboards. I love to see what companies profess to care most about, and how they display their progress.

But the most important dashboards are the ones visitors never see. They are designed to measure not external output, but internal productivity--not how many widgets a company is making, but how it goes about making said widgets, and how well employees are working together to make them. These dashboards are all about the process, not the product. Every company needs tools (i.e., software) that help people work together and see how that work is going. These tools are critical and among the hardest ones to pick.

Choosing tools used to be pretty simple. You used Microsoft Office to do the work and circulate it (oh, lord, Outlook!) and--if you were big enough--enterprise software from SAP or Oracle PeopleSoft to manage operations. But in these more cloud-y days, a startup
can choose among a profusion of tools designed expressly for small companies­­--tools to handle process, like Slack, Basecamp, Asana, Jira, HipChat, and Trello, and productivity tools to handle operations and oversight, like 15Five, Trakstar, and BetterWorks. Jerry Chen, a venture capitalist at Greylock, described these as "systems of engagement" and "systems of record," a helpful rubric.

At my startup, Iodine, getting this mix right has been a four-year effort. At times, we've overdone our process, to the detriment of getting things done; at other times, we've been undisciplined, to the detriment of learning from our mistakes and wins. This year, we've reevaluated. We've added a few new tools, such as 15Five, and tried to deploy old ones, such as Slack and Asana, more effectively.

For startups, it's essential to get this calibration right, because every tool carries training and input costs, and it's easy to add new tools without dropping old ones. Above all, make sure to avoid tool fatigue--churning through too many services or adding more tools without eliminating others. Tool fatigue is a tax paid more by employees than managers, so it's easy to miss. Tool fatigue is what happens when tracking process becomes more important than making progress.

And know that every tool comes with tradeoffs. Some services can be overwhelming, creating a cascade of messages that disrupt workflow and drown vital data in a stream of irrelevant burps. Many tools force redundant inputs. And as great as some of these tools can be, they can result in a fragmented universe, each requiring work to work. Thankfully, some folks have spotted this problem and are eager to solve it. "The world of work is changing, and the tools haven't caught up," says Dan Pupius, the former head of engineering at Medium and co-founder of Habitat, a startup that is building a platform to solve process. "Even the tools that promise to help you work together better are often only helping you use their tools better."

His startup envisions tools that support both collaboration and engagement without taxing the team too much with process overhead--tools that help a company perform well but also perform smarter. Greylock's Chen calls this new space "systems of intelligence," pointing
to a hopeful world where enterprise software doesn't just track the work, but informs better work. After all, when we spend more time measuring our work than doing the work, then
the dashboards have won.

FROM THE SEPTEMBER 2017 ISSUE OF INC. MAGAZINE