Pavlov’s metric

Numbers are so alluring. Our steps. Our likes. Our “friends”. And like Pavlov and his slobbering canines, we get trained to respond to these numbers.

But these numbers become self-serving. They become not a means to an end, but an end in their own right. They change their meaning accordingly, and then people game systems to hit targets. That’s game as in cheat, not gamify. Social scientists sometimes call these Goodhart’s and Campbell’s laws.

Today I saw this pop up in front of me (no doubt triggered by some madcap metric chasing social media and online advertising campaign):

Screenshot 2015-07-07 at 10.48.38

“Measure and increase employee engagement”. Create a made up number and then watch it increase. I can do that for less that 5 minutes each month – watch this:

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There you go.

Within all of this we lose the story. The narrative. The important bit. Whilst metric heads sell the emotional crack cocaine of numbers, stories become mere “content” to drive hits and engagements and likes and retweets. Meanwhile the creative, beautiful, essentially human part of it all is lost to meaningless but addictive numbers. Selling something on the basis of a story is not enough – you need a set of statistics wrapped up in the syringe of the infographic to create great impact.

You don’t manage what you measure. You connect and emote with things. And then numbers are used to reverse engineer those emotions. This is making us no better than the machines. And believe me, we are better than the machines.

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