“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” But we can. Can’t we?
To say that Peter Drucker is revered as an organisational and management thinker rather underplays his legacy. Like saying Alan Turing dabbled with computers. He gave us “knowledge worker” and lots of us are just the thing, so we have an almost personal association. We see ourselves in his mirror. The trouble with being apotheosised is that you get held responsible for things you didn’t say, too. Like any version of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
To be clear, measurement in many instances is beneficial, even essential. Not just in its own right: it feeds our ability to estimate and develop shortcuts that ensure we don’t freeze in apoplectic terror at not having the information needed to do anything. We can roughly know how far or fast something is, how heavy or hot. As a result, we trust ourselves. It’s fundamental to our very existence That measurement is not beneficial or essential is far from the contention here. What is in question, however, is how it’s used, and that it’s deemed to be an absolute requirement.
Then there’s the other half of the statement, management. It’s vogue to see management as unnecessary, something that just hangs around and gets in the way. We paint pictures of our organisations as dynamic, thrusting, spirited and fearless entities bursting out of garages or telephone boxes with the innate disruptive impulse of a Nile perch. Even the scaliest, lumbering quadruped halfway to extinction is in someone’s mind “just a big start-up, really.” None of which has need of the innate friction of management.
Yet irrespective of sector or type, organisations are fundamentally designed to survive, to maximise resilience through expending the minimum of effort or consuming the least resources possible. All organisations are therefore hard-wired to prevent things from happening, to attain certainty. Which is the principle task of management. Because management brings control. And management craves the core ingredient of control — measured data. Where it can’t find it, it has to improvise, whatever it takes. It’s no wonder we’re fed the maxim that we can’t manage something if we can’t measure it. All of which isn’t a startling revelation, of course. We just generally don’t like to talk about it, least of all challenge it.
A little history may be helpful. Performance measurement goes back a long way. Luca Pacioli, the founder of modern accounting, stressed in his book Summa de Arithmetica, Geometria. Proportioni et Proportionalita (there are fewer snappier titles) in 1494 that business folk must have an orderly record of the performance of their operation. It sounds blindingly obvious today, but it began the development over the next several hundred years of performance measurement that eventually spawned generic instruments of everyday torture such as balanced scorecards and performance matrices.
From the late 1880s performance measurement really found its mojo with the birth of what became known as “scientific management” for its spawning of quantitative and mathematical methods. The individual whose focus on measuring the task efficiency of workers over time still generates the most emotion today when evaluating hard work is Frederick Winslow Taylor, stemming from his 1911 work Scientific Management.
Shortly after publication, the solidarity of the Taylorites was broken by the heresies of Frank Gilbreth and most notably Henry Gantt. The latter, he of the indecipherable chart on every project manager’s block, in particular saw the main cause of inefficiency not as the worker, but the manager. He elevated causality within the organisation. Initially promising, almost fashionable. However, it prompted efforts thereafter to consider a whole system approach reflecting the ever-increasing complexity of the environment in which organisations operated. Which at every stage inevitably meant more measurement. With which we’ve been burdened ever since.
Yet there’s a disorderly procession of problems with the opening proposition that will enable us to dismantle it. Ten of them, in fact.
First, it’s not easy. There are some fundamental issues with measurement that often mean what we consider to be true, isn’t. Not that they mean we shouldn’t measure, of course. But it’s not so simple. We can encounter any of these while remaining entirely unaware. We can do more than one at the same time. We could do all of them with deviously disguised incompetence. Here’s a summary:
Inaccuracy: it’s right enough
Bias: it feels right to me
Inconsistency: some of it’s right
Distraction: it’s interesting but not as much as THIS!
Timing: it looks right now
Accumulation: the stuff that’s right is in there somewhere
Influence: they told us it was right
Invention: it may be right but who’s to know?
Complexity: whatever it says it’s probably right
Validation: we think it’s right, but no-one checked
Second, so what? There’s every possibility we’ve measured a lot of stuff for no reason at all. Do the measures mean anything? What are we going to specifically do with them? Will they inform a decision, an action or conscious inaction? Will they fuel anything positive at all? Can we even use them to actually manage anything? Most of the time, no. Somewhere on the planet, visible from space, there’s a mountain of measurement slowly stewing in its own unfulfilled promise.
Third, it’s self-fulfilling. A job in itself. A distraction. Gathering measurements is relatively easy work. Which is why it’s often junior work, if it’s not already automated, in which case it’s junior work to inform of what the automated process produced. It is, in the main, compilation and aggregation. So, it’s a useful distraction from doing anything challenging or beneficial — or risky. Assembling that monthly performance report against KPIs is mindfully soporific and, of course, entirely necessary in the eyes of the person who won’t bother reading it or doing anything with it but wants it just in case. Nobody got fired for compiling the regularly required stuff. And hardly anyone challenged its necessity as it also performs a periodic validatory role for the compiler. The seasons turn, we compile the reports.
Fourth, it only tells part of the story. Usually because what’s lacking is the story. We can end up believing the measurement and not our own eyes or instincts. The time taken to complete something could be impressive but the actual output utter crap. We could have high attendance at an event but those present could have been stabbing themselves in the thigh with a sharp pencil just to stave off unconsciousness. Where the remainder of the story is missing, we make it up. We stitch together the measurements into a narrative that satisfies, complete with assumptions and interpretations. The measurements thereby inadvertently become “evidence.” The circle of self-delusion is complete.
Fifth, it gets weaponised. All organisations are political. Strangely, everyone thinks theirs is more political than others. Politics is a sink hole, people and careers vanish into it. Being political takes time and resources. And the weapon of politics is measurement. It doesn’t have to be fact. Just measurement. The ubiquity of misinformation in the global arena since the mid-2010s testifies to this. In 2017 the US President’s aide Kellyanne Conway drew ridicule for her use of the term “alternative facts” to describe lies told by the Press Secretary of the time regarding the size of the President’s inauguration crowd. She justified her approach on the basis that the crowd size could never be known so making it up was fine. The danger arises when the measurements are used as (or by) an offensive tool. Their mere existence is the temptation. Which ensures that…
Sixth, it legitimises fear as a management device. Management by measurement means everyone somewhere at some time is on a graded scale for something. Sometimes we know where we are, sometimes we only know when we’re told. The search for validation that generates stress is about knowing where on that scale we are. It might be our measurements putting someone else’s performance on a scale, even if we’re not always aware of the implications. Yet measurement unlocks the potential to deploy fear. It’s the beating black heart of every annual appraisal system: let’s face it, literally everyone hates them. We get told by someone who doesn’t know the half of it what they’ve extrapolated to be the whole of it. For many, fear is power and it’s directly proportional to their lack of ability. Because of this, it’s rarely sustainable but the collateral damage can’t always be undone.
Seventh, it magnifies disinterest. Sporadic measurement is often worse than none at all. The ‘Hawthorne effect’ revealed that when we’re being watched, we tend to try harder. In Smallcreep’s Day the workers felt that finally being paid some attention was beneficial: “It was so nice to feel that someone was taking an interest in us, we all worked harder, everyone in the factory.” That didn’t last. Because it rarely lasts. The occasion of interest that’s an annual appraisal often accentuates its paucity at all other times. It simply shows that a shit is only given when it absolutely has to be, and only for as long as it needs to be.
Eighth, it stifles creativity. Measurement, particularly financial, creates a sense of safety, a comfort that risk is being mitigated. Over-accumulated, it can perpetuate the most self-reinforcing transactional caution, a literal chastity belt for innovation. Yet measurement — and the factors being measured — are often woven into a story that tells us the opposite. A classic own goal. No creativity, no innovation, no future. The outcome — exceptionally tightly run businesses heading for unaffectionate oblivion.
Ninth, it’s culturally flawed. In some societies measurement is considered a negative pastime. “The standard Western management principle is ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ In our ethos, ‘if you measure it, you destroy it.’” So says Devdutt Pattanaik, renowned Indian mythology expert. He bases management practices on Hindu stories and rituals, a far more spiritual approach than rational developed world doctrines. And he has a track record of success with his methods. We have a lot to learn.
Finally, the measurement might be accurate, objective and timely, but we may just be a crap manager. Our offending phrase assumes innocently enough that measurement enables management. Maybe, just maybe, with all the key measurement data we could ever want, we couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo. Banjo dimensions (check), arse dimensions (check), wind speed (check), resistance (check); everything. People on hand to re-calibrate as we practice our swing. Footmarks on the floor and a precise tether for the unsuspecting bovine. But it’s not to be, we miss, every time. Of course, it works both ways. As managers we measure, and as workers we’re measured. We’re often both subject and object. But either way, even excellent measurement guarantees nothing at all but the measurement.
In the pre-Covid days when it was quaintly thought necessary for administrative organisations to work almost exclusively in offices, most measures of success were input based: how much time we spent, when we were seen, when we were heard. What was more important than anything, was, we were there. Even if when we were there we were entirely useless. Or worse, made sure everyone with whom we came into contact was entirely useless by getting on their nerves all day.
During the dark days we termed “lockdown,” where we couldn’t use our offices, there was celebration that we would be measured purely on our output, what we actually produced. But that was to fall foul of the equal and opposite tyranny of our value being determined by our inputs: we were ringing bells for the pre-schism Taylorites, for that was their mantra.
That’s because so much of what we do that’s of value can’t be measured. Either quantitatively or qualitatively. We know it’s of value because we can see the effects of our contribution. Sometimes a great deal later. On occasion, only when we’re told. Things like mentoring, advice, support, encouragement, motivation, confidence, tentative first steps, relationships, trust and safety to name but a few.
Take the last example. Just because there are zero lost hours reported from incidents and no records of near misses, doesn’t mean the environment and practices are safe. It just means people may have been lucky and the admin associated with reporting a near miss so burdensome that no-one bothered. But we can contribute to a safe environment by taking responsibility, knowing what’s needed, testing what appears uncertain, reporting what’s needed and doing everything possible to improve what we can. All of us.
All the features listed are the stuff of human development, motivation, satisfaction and creativity. The stuff that’s likely to be important, interesting, challenging and tangential. For which people make an effort because they want to. That makes everyone feel good about work and valued at work. That fires the present and future.
The un-measurable stuff still needs management. But a management that sets it free rather than constrains it. That allows it to flourish. That uses uniquely human skills. Like judgment, empathy, intuition, emotion and connection. Applying a measurement-based management style to these features of our working life is sure as heck going to squeeze the life out of them.
So, what can’t be measured can’t be managed as though it were being measured. Or it will die. We’ll only notice it when it’s not here anymore. And no-one else is here anymore.
As glaring a target as the opening statement offers, it’s still uttered with impunity. Of course, it’s once again a question of balance. Some things need measuring, and some don’t. It’s about applying ourselves to determine the right ones in each case. Some things need managing and some don’t. The same principle applies. Yet that doesn’t mean ignoring those things it’s decided don’t warrant measurement or management. They may just be the most important aspects of our working lives. The attention they need is guidance. Our statement therefore becomes:
“We measure and manage what we need — and guide the rest”
Naturally this is much tougher for those who are in a position of management. They have to decide. And they could get it wrong. The temptation to preventively carpet bomb every scenario with measurement is ever-present. So how do we un-fuck measurement? Three possible places to begin are as follows.
First, we define its purpose. We understand why we need to measure something, how we do so and what it is — and develop the means to simultaneously measure and validate. There’s a natural sequence, a critical path if we will. The why stems from asking the right question. The responses “because it’s been requested” or “it’s needed by management” aren’t valid. Where we’re the instigator it necessitates awareness. Where we’re the recipient of a request (read, instruction), it can place us in an awkward position. That’s a call we need to make — whether to challenge, and if so, how. If we can satisfy the why and can’t answer the how, the same outcome. Finally, we need to be clear on what it is we need. We understand that incorrect measurement can wreak vastly disproportionate damage if not recognised for what it is.
Second, we’re sparing with it. We understand that measurement of itself doesn’t make us a better manager. We therefore avoid the temptation to try and measure what can’t be, or doesn’t need to be, in the deluded belief it’s essential to us. A huge swathe of the natural habitat of the corporate and organisational lies outside of measurable reach, where it’s essential that it’s allowed to flourish. It’s the environment in which management ability is truly tested. It then makes the things we measure, when we’re confident they’re necessary and right, more meaningful and more likely to be respected and taken seriously. We value it, rather than feel our shoulders droop and our spirit wilt at the mere thought.
Third, we’re careful with it. The misuse of measurement within an organisation is often one stage removed from ourselves, by those who’ve not been involved in the process above but are merely presented with the opportunity. We therefore understand and define the ground rules for handling measurement when we have it. Who uses it (and how far it travels), what for and why — and how we respond in circumstances where we don’t have measurement where it’s expected we should. We don’t leave it lying around or distribute it freely. It’s another level of interrogation, but an essential one.
And in doing all of this, we set ourselves free.
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This post is an abridged chapter from my latest book Unf*cking Work, published by Zer0 Books and available from all good booksellers — and most crap ones, too. All reviews, critical or otherwise, massively appreciated.