Back Off That Measurement Fetish

As I’ve written recently, I spent many years tracking the time on spent on each of my daily, weekly, and monthly projects. That served me well, as it gave me the data I needed to eliminate time-wasters so I could focus in depth and at length on my most important tasks, projects, and goals.

But that’s a qualitatively different effort from what I call the “measurement fetish:” the simple-minded desire to count or measure time, effort, and/or results in hopes of improving performance – even if what you’re counting or measuring is not what you actually want to achieve.

For example, my counting up the amount of time I spent on a particular project made sense because during that time I was actually thinking about and working on the project at hand. But if, instead, I had counted up off-target “project proxies,” such as the time I spent at my desk, or looking at those project papers, or planning and attending meetings related to that project, there could have (and would have) been a wide disconnect between the time I spent and the results I actually achieved.

The measurements – regardless of how accurate and well-intentioned – would have been misleading.

You see the same kind of thing today, when teachers drill their students on material needed to pass standardized tests, instead of educating them more broadly and deeply on the particular topic of discipline they actually would benefit from learning. What they’re teaching is well-measured, but not useful to the students in the long-term.

You see other examples of the “measurement fetish” when:

  • A police department downgrades certain criminal activity in order to improve statistics purporting to show a reduced incidence of major crimes,
  • A corporate executive has her company buy back its stock in order to pump up its share price to meet performance criteria, triggering increases in her overall compensation,
  • A physician excludes marginal cases from an experimental program of therapeutic treatment in hopes of maximizing the treatment’s apparent efficacy.

I participated in a bit of “measurement fetish” when, working for a major public relations firm, I had to spend some of my time documenting my efforts on behalf of each client instead of using all my time to benefit those clients directly.

There are at least two ways to eliminate the downsides of “measurement fetish:”

Measure What’s Really Important

One of the biggest problems with “measurement fetish” comes when people measure the wrong things, or “fudge” the things they are measuring to make the statistics look better, or “game” the system to improve the measurements instead of the desired results.

It’s possible to minimize this problem by measuring the time, effort, and/or results that are as close as possible to the targets you are trying to hit. For example, instead of measuring sales calls, it’s better to measure the actual number of sales, and usually even better to measure the total dollar volume of sales.

Instead of measuring the average time a customer service agent spends on a customer call – presumably trying to resolve a complaint, it’s better to gauge the agents’ effectiveness by afterwards measuring the customers’ level of satisfaction.

Measuring time, effort, and/or results closer to the actual performance targets you seek eliminates more of the potential for inaccuracies, and also reduces the possibility that one or more unimportant or random factors are heavily influencing whatever you are measuring.

Don’t Measure, Work

The other big problem with the “measurement fetish” is when you try to apply it to something that’s not easily measured. For example, sometimes “pure research” results in thousands of failures that look bad on any measurement scale, until it suddenly produces a great result.

Until he finally succeeded, for example, Edison famously failed thousands of times to find the right materials for a commercially-successful light bulb. Imagine if he had quit after failing to produce measurable success after five or six thousand tries!

In certain cases, therefore, it’s better to sidestep the “measurement fetish” entirely and focus more on procedural considerations:

  • Are we working on what’s most important or useful?
  • Are we alert to the situation and the factors controlling it?
  • Are we applying the most appropriate skills and tools to the effort?
  • Are we spending our time and effort most effectively?
  • Are we making decisions and taking risks prudently?

These and other procedural considerations can show that you’re working in the right direction and likely to produce useful results, even though there are few or even no interim signs of progress.

The “measurement fetish” often arises from a lack of confidence in our own judgment and/or a hope that numbers can best guide us through complex, ambiguous situations. While numbers are often helpful, the “measurement fetish” can easily pull you off target and make it less likely you will productively and successfully accomplish the most important task, projects, and goals in your work and your life

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