Ten Reasons Why You Don't Always Get What You Measure: Part II
by Rick Brenner
Although many believe that "You get what you measure," metrics-based management systems sometimes produce disappointing results. In this Part II, we look at the effects of employee behavior.
Metrics-based management holds that "You get what you measure," but the assertion is actually even stronger. Many also believe that if you aren't measuring it, you won't get it. That's why it's reasonable to investigate possible causes of disappointing performance of metrics-based management. Here's part two of a collection of reasons why metrics-based management systems can disappoint. This part emphasizes employee behavior. See Part I and Part III, for more.
The Western Electric Plant at Hawthorne, Illinois. This plant was the site of a series of experiments that purportedly demonstrated observer effects, in which the act of observation affects the system being observed. The Hawthorne experiments remain controversial, but subsequent evidence of the importance of observer effects in general is more widely accepted. Photo courtesy The Eastland Memorial Society.
- People aren't bolts of cloth
- When we measure a length of cloth, the cloth hardly ever tries to influence the result. But employees, consciously or not, do try to make measurements "come out right." For instance, if employees fear the consequences of departing from management's expectations, they're more likely to provide data that's consistent with their estimate of management expectations.
- But this effect can be even more confounding. Employees sometimes guess wrong about what management is measuring. Their biased reports then "spin" the data in a direction consistent with their interpretations of what management is measuring, rather than spinning it with respect to what management is actually measuring. Thus, even if we figure out how to correct for "spin," we might not be correcting for the right spin.
- People and organizations adapt
- Whether or not you believe that measurement works, it works best at first, because repeated measurements of the same attributes have decreasing impact. Soon, the measurement becomes routine, and employees adapt their actions and responses to enable a more comfortable, familiar stance.
- For instance, When we measure
a length of cloth,
the cloth hardly ever
tries to influence the resultwhen we first start tracking "show-stopper defects," we find people working hard to fix them. But after a few cycles, people develop ways of reclassifying defects to appear less severe, or they create escape clauses, or the organization develops an "appeal procedure" for obtaining waivers. The effect of the metric soon diminishes, often after a surprisingly short useful life.
- Measurements of different attributes can interact
- When people notice that we're measuring two different attributes, they might try to make them both "come out right," and this sometimes leads them to contradictions. For instance, to achieve long-term goals, we might have to take actions that jeopardize short-term goals, or vice versa. Thus, the act of measuring one attribute can affect the measurement of another.
- Moreover, it isn't necessary that we actually make two measurements. All that's required for contamination of the data is a belief among some employees that measurement of a second attribute might take place. Perhaps we measured it in the past, or perhaps other organizations measure it, or the "literature" suggests measuring it. Even if you announce that it won't be measured, there are those who will remain skeptical, and who assume that it will happen, "just to be safe."
Just as employees make choices that can reduce the effectiveness of measurements, so can management. We'll examine that issue in a future issue. Top Next Issue
Are your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness
- The Shape of the Table
- Not only was the meeting running over, but it now seemed that the entire far end of the table was having its own meeting. Why are some meetings like this?
- Smart Bookshelves
- If you like to browse in bookstores, you probably know the thrill of new ideas and new perspectives. When I find a book worth reading, I want to own it, and that's how it gets to my shelf. Here are some tips to help you read more of what you really want to read.
- Illusory Incentives
- Although the theory of incentives at work is changing rapidly, its goal generally remains helping employers obtain more output at lower cost. Here are some neglected effects that tend to limit the chances of achieving that goal.
- How to Make Good Guesses: Strategy
- Making good guesses — guessing right — is often regarded as a talent that cannot be taught. Like most things, it probably does take talent to be among the first rank of those who make conjectures. But being in the second rank is pretty good, too, and we can learn how to do that.
- Communication Refactoring in Organizations
- Inadequate communication between units of large organizations is one factor that maintains the dysfunction of "silo" structures in large organizations, limiting their ability to act coherently. Communication refactoring can help large organizations to see themselves as wholes.
See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Critical Thinking at Work for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:
- Managing Virtual Meetings for Real Results
- Leading or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: