The False Tyranny of Metrics


Happy New Year brother.  It looks like 2011 is going to be an outstanding year for Talent Anarchy, I look forward to getting our book published this year and I look forward to taking our message back out on the road.  I just hope that the topic you teed up in your last blog post does not send us to divorce court.

I think that this issue, which we are in complete disagreement on, is a really, really big deal.  I think that this is an issue that cuts to the heart of the struggle for the future of the organization…and maybe the future of our economy.

“We all have heard the quote, “What gets measured, gets done.”  Beyond that, business is increasingly a world of numbers, so we must be able to measure the impact of our work in order to remain relevant and to continue to have the opportunity to make an impact.”

I have heard this quote many times, but just because it is said and even true in most organizations does not make it right. There is a whole bunch of stuff that gets said and done in organizations that is not in the best interest of those organizations…part of the reason why the organizational life span is not terribly long.  This idea is part of the 20th century ideology of commerce that I believe is going to prove suicidal in the 21st century.  I would say that we are already seeing some evidence of that.

“I expect that you are going to argue that some of the most important elements within our work can’t be measured.  When we talk about unleashing talent in organizations, we quickly find our way to topics like passion, love, creativity, and purpose.  It’s easy to say that these things can’t be measured.  If that’s the position we chose to take, then I think we are admitting defeat and that we will never make these things a sustainable part of how people work and what corporate cultures should look like.”

You are absolutely right, I do say that those things cannot be measured…but why is that admitting defeat?  Defeat of what?  It’s not just easy to say, its also the truth.  I think admitting that the most important things in work and life cannot be measured like simple commodities, is not only accurate and honest, but also a victory over the linear and binary thinking of another time.  Metrics are one dimensional, human beings are not.  Love is not. Curiosity and passion and creativity and perspective are not, organizational culture is not, social capital is not, ethics and integrity are not.   Prioritizing things that can be measured over these kinds of things has been very, very costly to business.  We have, in the name of metrics, hollowed out our organizations, our organizational cultures and the employee-employer relationship.

Assuming that we have got to be able to measure something to acknowledge its existence seems reckless to me and leads us down a very inauthentic and unproductive road.  It is a false constraint.  It is a false constraint supported by antiquated archetypes of the organization, of management, and the value creation process…and those that sell us metrics.  We need not to struggle for measurement of things that cannot be measured, but help our organizations better understand the intangibles that are so valuable today, and that we can still pay attention to and even prioritize things that cannot be directly measured…I would argue that most of the organizations that get constantly idolized in the HR/OD blogosphere have actually done some of that.  Organizational culture, which cannot be directly measured, is a perfect example.  There are clearly organizations out there that have prioritized their culture…and while they probably look at a number of indicators to give them some reference points, I think they would agree that culture cannot truly be measured and that that does not matter.

I spent today with about 400 educators and many of them are trying to focus on what really matters…but what really matters is being pushed aside by things that can metricked.  We love data and metrics and we love them for all of the right reasons…accountability, tracking, ROI, but we tell a very serious lie with data.  It never tells the whole story.  When the genius consultants from Genius Consulting Corporation develop a model for “employee engagement” that is based on decades of research and millions of data points, we rush off to implement it in our organization and we build training around it, accountability, incentives, so on and so forth.  And instead of focusing on actual engagement, we focus on our new model and metric for engagement.  We have actually distorted the real thing by jamming it into a one dimensional number.  The map is not the terrain and the metric is not the thing.  Test scores do not equal education.

We do not have to measure what really matters to make it really matter.  We just have to get brutally honest about what does really matter and act accordingly…we need to actually prioritize it over all the bullshit that we obsess about because it fits into a goddamn spreadsheet.  When our meetings are about the stuff that really matters instead of just the stuff that we can measure, then individual and organizational behavior will follow and both with thrive.

“Being a pragmatist, the challenge we face as cultural architects or teachers of leadership is that we have limited time, resources and energy to invest in our work.  Generally, that means that we spend our time doing rather than measuring.  While that feels good on the surface and generally gets us paid, I’m not sure it’s moving the needle.  Most organizations have cultures that are as dysfunctional today as they were 20 years ago and their leadership isn’t any better.  We still have bad managers everywhere we look despite decades of management training and billions of management books on the book shelves.”

Moving what needle?  The 20th century dashboard is a waste of time and we are going to drive off the cliff if we continue to put all of our attention there.  We still have dysfunctional organizations and managers because we continue to focus on what we think we can measure.  We have organizations full of less than honest conversations and relationships.  Everyone says that honesty is important, but do we ever talk about our ability to be honest with each other? No.  We do not.  A metric is not going to change that.  Its all about courage.

“Could it be that until we figure out a way to measure what really matters, that we can’t make the kind of progress we desperately need.  An example of what I’m talking about is the tool which was created by the folks at Quantum Workplace.  They are the leader nationally in doing best places to work and employee engagement surveys.  From their data, they were able to isolate a set of competencies that differentiated leaders who drive the highest engagement.  They then turned those competencies into a leadership model and crafted a way to measure them.  I’m not sure it’s a perfect way to measure leadership attributes, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.  Particularly if you can correlate higher engagement scores to better results within your organization.  That’s where the breakthrough will come.”

There are lots of models and tools out there based on lots of research and questions.  I will not say that they have no value, but it is still taking something that is contextual and exponential and trying to turn it into a commodity.    Our future is not in building the right metric.  Our future is in remembering (and reminding the rest of the organization) that we do not work in the domain of commodities.  The CFO owned the final decades of the 20th century and it almost destroyed the American economy.  Why our profession is desperately trying to validate our work according to their logic and language is beyond me.  We are not accountants. We are Jedi.  We play on a completely different field.

You can measure whatever you like.  With some honest candid conversation with a random sampling of employees I will know more about the organization, the culture and the leadership than you will.  Now I realize that this is not something that is easy for the big consulting houses to turn into a multi-million dollar revenue stream, but they are interested in profit, not the truth.

I love ya man.  I have met and continue to meet a lot of really smart people…but I would still say that you are probably the smartest cat I know.  But you and I are very different sides of this issue.  I think that when metrics are used right they can be of some value, but I think they are rarely used right.  When they are not used right they are a big part of the problem.  They are often used to justify a certain ideology of business and often used to provide us with a mechanism for simplifying and commodifying things which are not simple in nature and are not commodities. In fact these intangible assets are the new source of value.  We must take better care of them.

Its anarchy brother.  Its anarchy and organizations are going to run with it or run from it…and that will make all the difference.



  1. Excellent exchange – here’s my anecdotal contribution in support of transcending metrics and moving on.

    I was supervising 20 or so direct care staff in a group ho,me environment I got on a tirade about tardiness. Well over half of the staff were clocking in late on a regular basis. This was a 24/7 facility so one person being tardy snowballed into the outgoing staff having to stick around (and complaining very loudly). I put the hammer down. I wrote people up and we talked about it at team meetings and I became the time clock tyrant.

    I was talking with my boss about the situation when he asked me if my team cared about the people we served and if they were dedicated to helping those folks achieve outcomes. I answered yes – they excelled at achieving outcomes. He then challenged me by pointing out that the only reason I was on my time-clock tirade was because I could hit a button on the computer and spit out the metrics related to the situation. Punch reports were the metrics I had available so that was what I managed to.

    Know I know that if there were a similar button that spit out a report that measured the team’s Love quotient, I would hammer that thing until it broke. In a perfect world we could develop metrics about Caring and Love, and Compassion (Jason’s viewpoint) but knowing what I know about humans, we would just over-focus on THOSE metrics (and try to game those numbers) at the cost of something else. I say we stop trying to measure those squishy and hard to measure things and instead, we focus on getting really good at cultivating and growing those squishy things in the people we lead (Joe’s viewpoint).

  2. Remember the wise words of Albert Einstein (who knew a thing or two about measuring and metrics): “Not everything that can be measured matters. Not everything that matters can be measured.”

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