What Gets Measured…

There’s a common expression and management dogma that ‘what gets measured gets done’, which may well be true – but we should not conflate that with thinking that what gets done is what needs to be done, nor that what gets measured has value.

Indeed: what gets measured is often that which we can easily measure, or easily understand to measure, and what gets measured is typically an abstraction, or subset, of a whole.

Measurement is a pill that may ease our pain, at the cost of our health.

This may be especially true when we are not clear what, exactly, needs to be done: we may know the outcome that we seek, but not the process or steps to get us there, or we may know one way forward, but not the paths that surround it which may, in fact, be shortcuts.

Measurement may be used to see the way forward, or measure what lies behind us: to differentiate between these two, which may be classed as diagnostic measurement, or assessment, is important, but not always clear.

Sometimes we ‘assess’ what was done in the belief that it may diagnose the future state, which may be true in some cases, but not necessarily if conditions or context change. For example, when i’m sailing on a sunny day i may learn to use one set of sails, but that set of sails would lead to disaster in a storm, as they catch too much wind, or exert stress that would overwhelm the structure of the rigging or mast.

One useful reminder to self may be that ‘what gets measured’ is essentially a measure of what gets measured. Measurement gives us data, from which we may infer meaning. Sometimes with a high level of confidence, and sometimes as little more than a guess in the wind.

Measurement is somewhat totemic within the modern Organisation: we may gain power simply by demanding measurement, but measurement in itself is neither difficult nor useful – it’s a weasel word that may be transposed, biased, or simply incomplete or wrong.

Perhaps sometimes we say we want measurement as a proxy for the word ‘insight’ or ‘clarity’ – we wish to make decisions (rightly so) with more than simply optimism, dogmatic belief, or as simple guesses – but measurement, without a clear understanding of the wide range of methodologies and outcomes, may indeed be little better than a chalk pill.

One way to view it is this: start with outcomes – be they clear (we need ‘this’) or directional (we need something ‘new’) – consider whether what we seek can be understood before the journey, or whether it will be an emergent property OF the journey, and consider the basis on which we believe that the ‘measurable’ is a reliable indicator, proxy, or reflection, of the desire.

For example: imagine we wish to innovate a coffee shop. Will we measure our success against a fixed sketch of the coffee shop we imagine (green walls, 12 tables, $1,000 revenue a week), or against a reasonable range of outcomes (colourful walls, intimate vibe, reasonable revenue), or against a dream (a next generation coffee experience).

The first is an absolute measure, the quality of which depends on our ability to observe what is done, the second is absolute within a range, so we may be able to identify the scales (qualitative satisfaction with decor, quantitative number of seats and revenue – although they too could be qualitative measures of ‘enough’ and ‘intimate’), and the third is relative (different from what we have now, but in unknown ways – so we do not even (necessarily) know the scales.

In general, i would advocate using measurement as a sword, without waiting to be hit: build creative measurement into your proposal, whatever the subject. But equally recognise that the term itself is simply descriptive of activity, not quality.

You can measure failure as easily as success, possibly more so. And you can measure yourself to failure most easily of all.

Measurement is vital: as part of a more scientific approach to Organisational development, and as part of good practice to learn as we travel, but it is a sharp tool, to be handled with care.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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