Managing by Measurement

All good adages exist with their exact opposites, and like any good rules – especially conflicting ones – understanding where and how to apply them is the real knowledge. Knowing the rules is the easy bit. Hypocrisy – handling conflicting ideas effectively – is an undervalued skill.

Management Science would suggest:

“What you can’t measure, you can’t manage.”

And use that as justification for measuring all manner of performance indicators. The trouble is that invariably shifts focus to things that can be easily measured or represented by some quantifiable surrogate value at the expense of all the subjective complexity of real life. People are then often surprised and disappointed with the unintended consequences of:

“What you measure, is what you get.”

For me personally, knowing – and preaching – this goes back to the 1980’s education and experience, but it goes back to many warning against scientific management in 1920’s & 1930’s (Mary Parker-Follett would be an exemplar).  The Vietnam “body-count” disaster, attributed to Bob McNamara (The McNamara Fallacy) was well summarised in 1972 by by Daniel Yankelovich:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured.
This is OK as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value.
This is artificial and misleading.

The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important.
This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist.
This is suicide.

Or more simply, in the words of (the apocryphal) Einstein:

“What counts can’t always be counted.”

No one in their right mind would ignore evidence that can be accounted for, but you’d have to be out of your mind to rely on it.


[For more on the Wisdom of Rules and the Evolution of Wisdom.]

[For more on Management Hypocrisy – Nils Brunsson.]

[For more on Integrated Conflict is not a Compromise – Mary Parker-Follett.]

[For more on The Exception that Proves the Rule.]