I was chatting with my neighbour a few weeks ago, and for some reason got onto my pet subject of why measurement is at the core of so many of the problems I see in the world of business.

“You know I can’t agree with that, Matt. I’m an accountant.”

And therein lies the problem.

Just imagine if marketers were preeminent in business and the answer to everything was to run a marketing campaign. Or if IT people were, and the answer was to build a new system. Or if recruitment people were, and the answer was to get new skills. Actually, doesn’t that sound like what those people actually do say?

But of course it’s the accountants who have the hand on the tiller in most organisations, so it’s their methods that win out. Got a problem? Measure it.

The mantra of “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” (a platitude that regularly gets misattributed) rules supreme. And as a result only things that can be measured get managed, and those things are often dangerously loose proxies for the things that we do actually need to manage. Like substituting Net Promoter Score for actually managing what our customers think of us. Or substituting hacked together employee engagement stats instead of trying to manage whether our staff actually give a shit.

Measures simplify the complex to make it stupid. They also put disproportionate focus onto things that happen rather than those that don’t: we end up rewarding people for fires extinguished rather than those that were prevented. And then people will game the system to hit those targets anyway… Often to perversely impact what was supposed to be achieved in what’s known as the Cobra Effect.

This isn’t some sort of post-fact anti-expert diatribe. This is a call to respect that stories are as important as numbers, and that is dangerous to assume that numbers are the only sort of truth. Some numbers matter a lot more than others. And many of them are actually meaningless if not actually harmful.

After all, if you can’t manage, do you just measure?

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