Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 18;   May 2, 2007: Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: II

Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: II

by

Although many believe that "You get what you measure," metrics-based management systems sometimes produce disappointing results. In this Part II, we look at the effects of employee behavior.

Metrics-based management holds that "You get what you measure," but the assertion is actually even stronger. Many also believe that if you aren't measuring it, you won't get it. That's why it's reasonable to investigate possible causes of disappointing performance of metrics-based management. Here's part two of a collection of reasons why metrics-based management systems can disappoint. This part emphasizes employee behavior. See Part I and Part III, for more.

The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, Illinois

The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, Illinois, 1925. This plant was the site of a series of experiments that purportedly demonstrated observer effects, in which the act of observation affects the system being observed. The Hawthorne experiments remain controversial, but subsequent evidence of the importance of observer effects in general is more widely accepted. Photo courtesy The Eastland Memorial Society.

People aren't bolts of cloth
When we measure a length of cloth, the cloth hardly ever tries to influence the result. But employees, consciously or not, do try to make measurements "come out right." For instance, if employees fear the consequences of departing from management's expectations, they're more likely to provide data that's consistent with their estimate of management expectations.
But this effect can be even more confounding. Employees sometimes guess wrong about what management is measuring. Their biased reports then "spin" the data in a direction consistent with their interpretations of what management is measuring, rather than spinning it with respect to what management is actually measuring. Thus, even if we figure out how to correct for "spin," we might not be correcting for the right spin.
People and organizations adapt
Whether or not you believe that measurement works, it works best at first, because repeated measurements of the same attributes have decreasing impact. Soon, the measurement becomes routine, and employees adapt their actions and responses to enable a more comfortable, familiar stance.
For instance, When we measure
a length of cloth,
the cloth hardly ever
tries to influence the result
when we first start tracking "show-stopper defects," we find people working hard to fix them. But after a few cycles, people develop ways of reclassifying defects to appear less severe, or they create escape clauses, or the organization develops an "appeal procedure" for obtaining waivers. The effect of the metric soon diminishes, often after a surprisingly short useful life.
Measurements of different attributes can interact
When people notice that we're measuring two different attributes, they might try to make them both "come out right," and this sometimes leads them to contradictions. For instance, to achieve long-term goals, we might have to take actions that jeopardize short-term goals, or vice versa. Thus, the act of measuring one attribute can affect the measurement of another.
Moreover, it isn't necessary that we actually make two measurements. All that's required for contamination of the data is a belief among some employees that measurement of a second attribute might take place. Perhaps we measured it in the past, or perhaps other organizations measure it, or the "literature" suggests measuring it. Even if you announce that it won't be measured, there are those who will remain skeptical, and who assume that it will happen, "just to be safe."

Just as employees make choices that can reduce the effectiveness of measurements, so can management. We'll examine that issue in a future issue. Go to top Top  Next issue: Have a Program, Not Just an Agenda  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenhIJLyLEBpkvILjJKner@ChacnhTDTjQpbThDnvWooCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A tugboat at workBecome a Tugboat Captain
If your job responsibilities sometimes require that you tell powerful people that they must do something differently, you could find yourself in danger from time to time. You can learn a lot from tugboat captains.
Mars as seen by Hubble Space TelescopeWho Would You Take With You to Mars?
What makes a great team? What traits do you value in teammates? Project teams can learn a lot from the latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
A Rough-Legged Hawk surveys its domainTake Any Seat: II
In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.
A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempi), ashore, probably to lay eggsSeven Ways to Get Nowhere
Ever have the feeling that you're getting nowhere? You have the sense of movement, but you're making no real progress towards the goal. How does this happen? What can you do about it?
kudzu enveloping a Mississippi landscapeListening to Ramblers
Ramblers are people who can't get to the point. They ramble, they get lost in detail, and listeners can't follow their logic, if there is any. How can you deal with ramblers while maintaining civility and decorum?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A shark of unspecified speciesComing May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
Jump ball in a game of basketballAnd on May 9: Unethical Coordination
When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuOmKWburbCQkAIEwner@ChacKQiZdYUqtPXfIhBVoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.