Despite What You May Have Heard, Measurement Isn’t Evil


Wow.  I knew that I’d hit a hot button with you when I teed up this topic of measurement, but I had no idea how much bottled up angst you had on this subject.  I hope that it didn’t ruin your weekend.  And don’t worry about a divorce–the make up posts are always the best.  Your post was terrific and though provoking.  It certainly hit a nerve with a lot of folks and I think it further illustrates the significance of the issue at hand.

I think it’s important to note that you and I are in complete agreement about the kind of work that needs to be done in organizations.  We need more love, courage and passion in our workplaces.  We are on a quest to set talent free and to help organizations be more authentic.  This is not in question.  The topic on the table is what role measurement plays when we do this work.

I’ve got to start by breaking down this issue a little bit.  While you might be comfortable taking the position that measurement is the enemy of progress, I think that’s a gross oversimplification of a really complex topic.  Let’s start by defining the term “measure” courtesy of

Measure.  verb.

1. to ascertain the extent, dimensions, quantity, capacity, etc.,of, esp. by comparison with a standard

2. to estimate the relative amount, value, etc., of, bycomparison with some standard

Measurement is an objective exercise that allows us to mark progress against either a benchmark or just from where we started.  I’m assuming that even you would agree that when you do work that aims at making a workplace more authentic, you should be able to tell if you are making progress.  If we aren’t making progress, then why do the work.  Futher, if we can’t tell when we are making progress, then how can we know if what we are doing is making any difference at all?  Whatever that thing is that you look at when you are determining if progress has been made, that’s a measure.  It may not look like one of these metrics you so fervently hate, but it’s still a measurement.  You throw out the idea of sitting down with some employees in the organization and talking to them as the anti-measurement activity.  It’s not.  In those conversations, you’d listen for certain things and take away certain observations.  These too are measurements.  Comparing two conversations with the same person at different times can be a way to measure progress.  At it’s most basic, this is what an engagement survey does.

So, I don’t accept that you think that measurement itself is evil.  That just doesn’t make sense because I know you are all about progress.  What I heard you say is that putting metrics and measurement before the actual work, or worse, substituting it as the work is really damaging and counter-productive.  And I would agree with that.  When the metric becomes what you are trying to accomplish, you have lost.  That doesn’t mean you throw out metrics.  Making that leap employs the same thinking that leads to banning access to social media in organizations because it might get used for unproductive activities.  You don’t ban social media, you instead teach people what appropriate use looks like.  The same is true for measurement in our work.  Just because there are people out there making a mess of it doesn’t mean you throw it out or stop.  It means that you look to improve the application of measurement to the work.

Human resources, OD, Training and Diversity work that doesn’t involve payroll, benefits or legal application has long been viewed as “feel good” work by the C-suite.  There’s a lot of reason for this but one of the most significant is that the leaders in our field could not and cannot articulate the value of the work we do and how we help the organization make progress.  Most of the organizations we work for exist ultimately to produce profit.  It might be that they should exist for a bigger, more noble purpose, but if they don’t generate profit they will cease to exist.  That’s the reality that all executives are faced with on a daily basis.  Maybe they should have an intrinsic notion that culture and love and creativity are good for the business, but the fact is that they don’t.  And, if we can’t in some way show them tangibly how the work we do makes progress towards producing profits at the bottom line, we may not even get the chance to do our work in the first place.

Love, curiosity, passion, courage, and all the other things you mention in your post might not be able to be directly measured.  But, if we can’t measure how the cultivation of these things in our people helps produce outcomes that lead to more profitable business, then we won’t be doing our work for very long–at least not in for-profit enterprises.  You can scream and shout about this all you want, but it’s a reality we have to face.  And it’s not going to change in the near future despite any of our notions of what business should be like in this new century.

So, for me, at the end of all of this, the question that sums up the important of measurement in our work is this:  How do you know that the what you are doing is making a difference?  That’s the essence of measurement.



  1. Great post. I agree: we need measurements to know if we’re adding value or improving in some regard as it relates to the organization’s strategy. Numbers carry a lot of weight.

    However, as you say, the metrics themselves are not the point in and of themselves. They may be imperfect, but there’s no excuse not to take a stab at some form of relevant measurement and them simply monitor consistently over time to see if the needle is moving up, down or sideways. It can be very illuminating and trigger lots of excellent discussion and debate, which itself generates ideas and strategies.

  2. What if you substitute measure and measurement with learn and learning?

    How we measure is a part of this, but how we learn is more important–and not understood well enough. I think sometimes we convince ourselves we have learned simply because we have metrics, but that is frequently a myth.

  3. A fascinating exchange, and I see a lot of value on both sides of the argument. Principally, what I’m taking away is that a) measuring some things quantitatively is possible, b) measuring everything that way is not, because c) some things can’t be measured quantitatively and d) other things can, however e) not everything that can be measured quantitatively is worth it, therefore f) the list things that both CAN and SHOULD be measured that way is a lot shorter than the list of things we might WANT to measure with numbers.

    For me, it’s not really so much about what is possible vs. what is impossible. Don’t get me wrong; that’s a really interesting conversation, and I’m really enjoying it. But I guess – for me – it’s more about what’s idealistic vs. what’s practical. I’m a pretty idealistic guy, so that’s usually a pretty one-sided conundrum in my world – but in this case, it’s more of a struggle. In my vision of an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to measure. It wouldn’t matter whether or not the things I’d want to measure were measurable; the powers-that-be (oh, them again) would simply let me do my work without having to prove my worth all the time.

    But that ideal world is pretty far off, I’m afraid. When you’re trying to wrestle precious time and money from corporate leaders to pursue a robust and comprehensive Diversity & Inclusion strategy, they’re not going to give you a dime (or a minute of their time) without some idea of what their return on investment is going to be. They live in a world of goals and data (maybe they shouldn’t, but they do), and they hold the purse strings.

    While it’s entirely appropriate to argue point (c) above when entering into these negotiations, any D&I practitioner that hopes to exit unscathed is also going to have to concede to point (a).

    AND: Joe’s point that the goal is to change the culture, not to achieve the desired metric is TOTALLY ON POINT. Just as in communication the medium is not the message, so as in D&I, the metric is not the goal. This doesn’t mean that we can or should stop measuring things altogether, but so crucial to keep in mind.

    Thanks for engaging my brain, fellas.

  4. This is a terrific dialogue guys…thank you. I find myself agreeing with a great many of both of your points. Fundamentally I agree that a lot of what is important cannot be measured. I spent some time with Ed Deming, the all-time measurement king, about two years before he died and he said that even he had come to believe that only 10% of what leaders do that really make a difference could be measured. We inherently accept that so many things are valuable without measured proof (e.g. “teamwork”) but we are constantly asked to justify diversity. And yet, it is true that if we can’t establish value in the language that people listen in, we won’t be able to win them over. The ultimately goal should ALWAYS be the culture change process and never numbers for the sake of numbers, but having quantifiable proof definitely helps build the case, or at least refute the case of detractors.

    Keep this interction going. You guys bring depth and thoughtfulness!

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