Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 7, Issue 16;   April 18, 2007: Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: I

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

by

One of the "truisms" floating around is that "You get what you measure." Belief in this assertion has led many to a metrics-based style of management, but the results have been uneven at best. Why?

Many believe that "You get what you measure." The belief persists, in part, because of anecdotal evidence; because some experiments do appear to be consistent with the assertion; and because so many of us believe that the rest of us believe it.

The Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost in 1999

The Mars Climate Orbiter, as it would have appeared if it had not been lost upon entry into Mars orbit. Mars Climate Orbiter was lost because of a mismatch between Metric and English units in a file used by its trajectory models. The measurements were all objective, and they were even precise, but confusion led to a loss of the orbiter. Photo courtesy U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Still, there are reasons to question its validity. What follows is a catalog of possible explanations for variances between the promise and the reality of metrics-based management. In this Part I, we examine three assumptions underlying the measurement process. See Part II and Part III for more.

We assume that indirect measurements work
Sometimes we try to measure attributes that aren't directly measurable. For instance, when we try to measure immeasurables like loyalty or initiative, we actually measure something else that we assume is highly correlated with what we're trying to measure. We usually do this using interviews or surveys.
But too often, rigorous proof of the assumed correlation is unavailable. Sometimes, we comfort ourselves, saying, "it's so obvious," but this is risky — the history of management, psychology, and science is replete with assumptions that, though obvious, were nonetheless false.
We assume that all attributes are measurable
The word "measurement" evokes our experiences determining physical attributes like length, weight, or temperature. This leads us to assume that whatever we want to know can be determined by a suitable measurement, but that assumption can lead to trouble. Consider something as important as progress. Suppose a team has been working for three weeks, when, suddenly, someone realizes that their entire approach will never work. This is certainly progress — they've learned something important. But it probably won't register as progress in the organization's metrics. Most likely, it will be reported as a setback.
Measuring nonphysical We assume (wrongly)
that all organizational
attributes are measurable
attributes, such as the advance of knowledge, is often possible when changes are incremental. But at times, our metrics fail, and they tend to fail precisely when we most want to know where we stand.
We assume that objectivity implies precision
Sometimes we use measures that are objective but imprecise. That is, we assume wrongly that multiple identical measurements would yield nearly identical results. For instance, when we measure attitudes using a survey "instrument," we assume that the results we obtain are relatively context-independent. We don't actually know that the results are independent of, say, the time of the month, or the price of the company's shares — we just assume it.
Rarely do we test these assumptions. Indeed, we often assume that these factors do affect the results. We know this because we sometimes observe organizations gaming the measurement for favorable results, or trying to influence the results by releasing favorable news.

Assumptions like these can account for some — not all — of the poor performance of metrics-based management. In a future issue, we'll examine the effects of employee behavior. Go to top Top  Next issue: When Stress Strikes  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? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.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.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

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 doorknobDoorknob Disclosures and Bye-Bye Bombshells
A doorknob disclosure is an uncomfortable, painful, or embarrassing revelation offered at the end of a meeting or conversation, usually by someone who's about to exit. When we learn about bad news in this way, we can feel frustrated and trapped. How can we respond effectively?
A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.What Makes a Good Question?
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
Admiral Edward Ratcliffe Garth Russell Evans, first Baron Mountevans of ChelseaGuidelines for Delegation
Mastering the art of delegation can increase your productivity, and help to develop the skills of the people you lead or manage. And it makes them better delegators, too. Here are some guidelines for delegation.
Artist's conception of an asteroid belt around the star VegaVirtual Clutter: II
Thorough de-cluttering at work involves more than organizing equipment and those piles of documents that tend to accumulate so mysteriously. We must also address the countless nonphysical entities that make work life so complicated — the virtual clutter.
A pumpkin pie in the midst of being dividedDisjoint Awareness: Systematics
Organizations use some policies and processes that can cause people in collaborations to have inaccurate understandings of what each other is doing. Performance management, politics, and resource allocation processes can all contribute to disjoint awareness.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A well-festooned utility poleComing June 26: Additive bias…or Not: I
When we alter existing systems to enhance them, we tend to favor adding components even when subtracting might be better. This effect has been attributed to a cognitive bias known as additive bias. But other forces more important might be afoot. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceAnd on July 3: Additive bias…Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, 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.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.