What Gets Measured Manages

What you measure can end up managing you.

‘What gets measured gets managed’.

If you’re not measuring something, you’re unlikely to be able to manage it well.

If someone’s motivated enough already to do something, you won’t need to monitor them.

But most people aren’t motivated to do most things, and that’s where measurement comes in.

If you’re doing something you’re not particularly keen on doing, and no one is tracking your performance, you’ll lose interest and slip up eventually.

So you find something to measure, and that’s a metric.

Whether it’s someone’s grades or a company’s valuation or a country’s GDP, it’s a metric that measures something – some sort of performance.

It’s easy to see where that saying comes from.

Managing Metrics

Sometimes, when managing the metric, the metric ends up managing everyone.

The metric becomes the goal, an end in itself, the ‘target’ for everyone to achieve.

And people, companies and countries end up assessing and judging their self-worth based on the metric.

In school you might hear that the goal is to get an A; do that and you’re a good kid; if you don’t, you’re not.

In business you might hear that the goal is to get valued at a billion dollars and become a unicorn, do that and you’re successful; if you don’t, you’re not.

In public policy / admin, you might believe the goal is to grow GDP as fast as you can; do that and your country’s doing well, if you don’t, it’s not.

Shifting Goalposts

The point of schooling used to be something else, perhaps learning or something like that; now it’s become getting a good grade.

Grades would come about on their own if someone had done the learning right.

You can get great grades without learning anything at all.

Business used to be about something else, perhaps making profits or providing valuable products/service; it seems to be moving towards convincing people you’re worth so much.

Valuation would come about on its own if the business made money or created actual ‘value’.

You can be valued highly without making money or even offering much value to customers.

The goal of admin is making people’s lives better and easier, assuming they have that aspiration and put some effort themselves, of course.

GDP and other metrics would reflect that if it’s done well.

You can grow fast, but all that growth be concentrated in a small percentile of the population, or driven solely by a few sectors of the economy.

Metrics ≠ Performance

The metric doesn’t tell you the whole story.

Just because two people score the same on an exam, doesn’t mean they’ve learnt equally well.

There’s a huge difference between learning something and studying it to score on an exam. Which is perhaps why there’s often a similar gulf between what you’ve learnt and what you’ve scored.

And just because two companies are valued equally doesn’t mean they are equally ‘valuable’.

Two countries too might grow at the same rate, or even have the same GDP per capita, but that doesn’t say anything about them being ‘similar’.

A percentage point growth from agriculture would have very different implications than the same growth from services.

Just as GDP per capita might say nothing about how GDP is distributed among people, or even where it comes from – if it’s a country riding off its natural resources or one building exports.

Metrics Matter

The problem isn’t with these particular metrics – grades, valuation, GDP.

If you replaced them with substitutes, the same thing would play out all over again.

Abandoning metrics entirely would be much worse – now there’s no way to know anything at all about what you’re doing, so anyone can claim anything.

And without the fear that their performance is being watched, people might stop performing.

The problem starts with believing that you can reduce a complex variable to a single metric – that you can equate learning with ‘grade’, a business’ potential with ‘valuation’, and a country’s progress with ‘GDP’.

And it then reaches its climax in chasing the metric above all else.

This is epitomized and comes to life in the ‘target-driven’ approach – aim for this grade, this valuation, this goal.

Perhaps it’s intellectual laziness – it’s too laborious to go into the nitty-gritty of the subject and come up with a nuanced picture. Or simply convenience – for most purposes, like conversation, this is sufficient; it’s too tiresome to dive into the details.

But it’s still good to know that the metric is not reality.

Then you have an idea when the metric is wrong.

When you’ve studied well but didn’t get a good grade that day – so you don’t let it affect you.

Or when you score high but know that you don’t really understand the subject at all – so you can try to improve.

You’ll be able to differentiate between the metric and the thing it seeks to measure.

To understand the difference between ‘learning’ / ‘intelligence’, and ‘getting good grades’.

And then you can combine more than one metric, so each can help patch up what the other doesn’t tell you, and in that way reveal more of the whole story.

So you can use metrics the way they’re meant to be used, to track your performance, without confusing them to be your performance.