Two laws, one thermometer

Here’s (roughly) what I talked about when I spoke at the Ignite Ubelly event last night in London’s fashionable West End…

I want to share with you something that has been keeping me awake at night. It seems that we have arrived as a society into a world where everything of any importance needs to be able to be categorized into one of three categories: red, amber or green. The “traffic light” system of management reporting.

The trouble is that when it comes to human systems, nothing is that simple: we look for red, amber or green in a world which is just myriad shades of amber. But we seem to be in a place where if it can’t be simplified down, if it can’t be counted, then it isn’t regarded as important.

Over the past few months I’ve come across a couple of “laws”, both coined in the mid-1970s, that have helped me to make sense of my unease.

The first was coined by Charles Goodhart, professor of economics at the LSE and a former advisor to the Bank of England monetary committee. Goodhart’s law observes that if you set a metric as a goal in an attempt to change a human system, then the meaning of that measure will change because you’ve used it as a measure – something objective becomes “loaded”, becomes subjective.

The second law was described by an American social scientist, Donald Campbell. Campbell’s observation was that if you set a metric as a goal in an attempt to change it, then it will become subject to “corruption pressures”. Or, as it’s more normally known, cheating.

If we combine these two laws, what do we find? That if you use a metric as a target for social change then the metric won’t mean what it used to, and people will probably cheat to hit the target.

A bit abstract, maybe; here are some examples:

In the NHS, it is increasingly common that patients at GP surgeries find that they can only make an appointment up to 48 hours in advance. This comes as a result of targets set by the NHS that patients should be able to make appointments within 48 hours: if you don’t allow them to do anything else, then the target gets hit (even if your GP has just told you he wants to see you next week).

In the police service, the number of uniformed officers has become a totemic measure of policing success. As a result, uniformed officers are doing back office work which could be done as well, and more cheaply, by civilian staff if it weren’t for the fact that it would be political suicide for a Chief Constable to drop their uniformed headcount figures.

A couple of months ago, in the run up to the Olympics, there was consternation that there would be huge delays in passengers getting through immigration at Heathrow. In that instance, there wasn’t even agreement about how to measure the metric, let alone consensus about what was an acceptable wait.

In the online world, we frequently see online polls – the “greatest film/song/PR company/widget” kind of thing – that rapidly turn into competitions as to who can mobilise support through a social network above all else. Just search the term “nominated” in Twitter to see what I mean.

This also now even boils down to us as individuals: how many followers do I have? How many friends “like” my posts? How many unread message sit in my inbox? What’s my Klout score today… last week I even saw a job spec doing the rounds stating Klout score of 35 as an essential criteria for apply for a job. Presumably that was the score before they changed their algorithms again.

What’s at the root of this measurement obsession? Well, I put it down to Frederick Taylor, the originator of the time and motion study, an OCD victim in the extreme, and a man who believed that there was one, perfect, and measurable way to do every single task.

Taylor’s theories worked well in the mechanical world. Famously Henry Ford took the concepts and ran with them in the Detroit production lines for the Model T. But does this make sense in a world of humans and our complex interactions of relationships and egos?

It strikes me that we have entered into a world where the world view of the economists, all those descendants of Adam Smith, have triumphed over the world of sociology and psychology, the worlds of Freud and others.

The Philosopher Karl Popper observed that things in the world fall into one of two categories: things that are like clocks, predictable and governed by rules; and things that are like clouds, chaotic and difficult to map in a systematic way. My view is that people, societies, organisations and the like are like clouds.

So how would a cloud view apply to one of the challenges I talked about a while ago? Well, how about we take a people-, rather than number-centric view of the immigration queues, and also take a note out of the Disneyworld book?

Now the queue to get into the country becomes an opportunity to help build a sense of excitement and anticipation about visiting Britain. The queues (when they exist) could snake through a series of model tableaux, illustration the wonderful facets of life in the UK. Video and audio could add to the experience, and, at the gates themselves, a holographic Paul McCartney could be singing “Hello, Goodbye” depending on the officer’s assessment…

OK, maybe we’ll ditch the McCartney bit. But the underlying principal would be that turning the “delay” into something people would enjoy (and also mean that they would arrive in the luggage hall at the same time as their bags) would mean the perception of the wait turns from negative to positive.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that measurement isn’t important. It’s just that measurements should be used as observations to help make the right decisions when it comes to influencing the behaviour of people, rather than being the goal in themselves.

If you had a thermometer at home, you might use it to decide whether to wear a coat or not; nobody would be daft enough to think that the mercury would drop if they decided to don their parker…

The age we live in, and the technology we have at our disposal, make the collection of data easier than it ever has been. We need to make sure that we don’t, as a result, end up believing that all we need to do is watch the thermometers.

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