What Gets Measured Gets Prioritized—And That May Not Be A Good Thing

Measurement needs to be balanced.
Too much focus on measurement can lead to myopic, distorted and even counterproductive behaviors.

There is a certain pragmatism in gauging an organization’s success by referring to objective indicators. It does not follow, however, that there is wisdom in operating an organization with an overly exaggerated focus on what can be measured. Indeed, such a focus can have dire consequences. The ubiquitous adage “what gets measured gets done” needs revision. What gets measured gets prioritized, but that may or may not be a good thing.

The Origin of a Maxim

It is unclear who originated the clichés “what gets measured gets done” and “what gets measured gets managed.” Many attribute these quotes to management consultant Peter Drucker, but, according to a 2013 article by neuro-economist Paul Zak, “Measurement Myopia,” published by the Drucker Institute itself, the attribution is incorrect. In Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Mr. Drucker did say: “Work implies not only that somebody is supposed to do the job, but also accountability, a deadline and, finally, the measurement of results — that is, feedback from results on the work and on the planning process itself.” Yet, as Mr. Zak notes, Mr. Drucker previously clarified that not everything can be measured, especially some of the most important things in business: “Your first role … is the personal one … It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do … It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

Others who have been credited with these clichés are mainly mathematicians, scientists and engineers. Over a century ago, Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), the mathematician and physicist for whom absolute temperature measurements are named, said, “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely … advanced to the stage of science.”

Further back, some attribute the quotes to the 16th-century mathematician Rheticus (Georg Joachim de Porris). Nevertheless, it appears that we do not know who first said “what gets measured gets done” or “what gets measured gets managed.” What we do know is that the leading candidates were not people whose focus was on organizational success.

Of course, there is value in the “what gets measured” derivative clichés. All else being equal, goals that are readily susceptible to measurement, especially on a periodic basis, are more likely to be achieved. This is true for a variety of reasons, including the following:

  1. Management has a clearer picture of staged progress, enabling it to be more proactive and targeted in ensuring eventual success.
  2. Human nature can lead to greater motivation when we see the quantified results of our work.
  3. Similarly, human nature can lead to a sense of competition if our quantitative results are being compared to those of our peers.
  4. It is easier to instill a sense of accountability when results can be measured precisely against goals.

For these reasons, the point of this article is not to suggest that results should not be measured. In most cases they should, but caution is warranted. There are dangers and limitations that must also be considered, ideally leading to a balanced approach that utilizes objective measurements selectively and carefully.

Limitations of Measurement

So, what are the dangers and limitations of too much focus on measurable results?

1. Too much focus on measurable results can lead to myopic, distorted and even counterproductive behavior.

An interesting phenomenon was observed in India during the time of British colonial rule. The British were concerned about the cobras there, so they offered a bounty for every dead cobra. The program worked at first: many cobras were killed by people seeking the reward (though it is unclear how many people may have been harmed in the process). Eventually, however, people began to find ways to “game the system,” including by breeding more cobras for the purpose of killing them and getting paid. What is now referred to as the “cobra effect” is perhaps an example of Goodhart’s Law, named for economist Charles Goodhart, who said: “any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

So it goes in organizations that overly devote themselves to measurable results. People will find ways to adapt to systems of measurement and, instead of thinking about overall purpose and impact, many will focus (intentionally or unintentionally) on just “making their/the numbers.” This type of behavior can take many insidious forms, such as:

  1. Delaying sales or other positive results because the current quarter’s target already has been achieved
  2. Prioritizing easier tasks at the expense of more important tasks to improve metrics based on quantity, customer ratings, or wait times
  3. Avoiding tasks because “I don’t get paid for that”
  4. Thinking about revenue without regard for profit
  5. Fighting for individual “credit” rather than organizational results
  6. Assuming the organization is performing well based solely on numbers
  7. Acting without regard for the organization’s mission, vision, and values because they are not what’s being measured

As the academic V.F. Ridgway noted: “Quantitative measures of performance are tools and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that … undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences. Judicious use of a tool requires awareness of possible side effects and reactions. Otherwise, indiscriminate use may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits … The cure is sometimes worse than the disease.”

2. Not everything that is important can be measured.

A related issue with overemphasizing measurable results is that some of the most important things an organization wants to emphasize or stand for cannot be measured with reasonable accuracy. Examples include culture, ethics, integrity, values and teamwork, let alone achieving its mission and vision.

In organizations that overemphasize measurable results, unmeasurable results are often underemphasized. Yet, the unmeasurable results may be as important, if not more important, than the measurable results. Gina Bradley, Chief Operating Officer of The Colony Group, recently said, “I do care about things like our share price and all the data that supports it, but those things are not what’s most important to me. What’s most important to me is being part of an organization that positively impacts others and in which I can have a positive impact on others.”

3. Measurements are often inaccurate and offer false precision.

Some will invariably argue that everything can be measured. For example, some might argue that culture can be measured by looking at retention statistics. Such arguments, however, are usually flawed. Continuing with that example, retention is a result of many factors – some internal, such as compensation, career paths and culture, and some external, such as the job market.

4. People are not numbers.

Continuing the above themes, humans are not always quantifiable – nor should they be. Measuring performance solely or even primarily by numbers risks ignoring some of the most powerful, but unmeasurable, contributions that people make. Leadership, positivity, mentoring, friendliness or just helping where needed are not so easily quantified.

Balance Is the Key

Organizations must remember that what they measure will get prioritized, but that may or may not be a good thing. They must balance their desire to quantify with the dangers and limitations of doing so. Ironically, balance is a physical and mathematical concept susceptible to measurement; but balance is also the answer to overmeasurement.

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