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The Measurement Trap - Cont'd: The "Dark Side" of Metrics

January 25, 2012

This is the second part of two-part discussion on Measurement and Business Metrics. In Part I, we used the example of a call center and how different metrics should be the focal point of different roles, with the fewer the better. Even if some roles work towards only ONE metric. In today's post, we get a bit philosophical and tap into historical references to measurement and it's "dark side".

The History of Measurement

Death StarI just finished reading a fascinating book that surprised me by having a lot more to do with the topic of ROI than I expected, and really spoke to me about something that has always bothered me about the endless drive to precisely measure everything in business. World In The Balance*, is a wonderfully written and well-researched history of humankind’s effort to develop standard measurements through the centuries, covering everything from the Roman origins of many of our Imperial measures, a system of cast figurine weights used for trade by the Akan in pre-colonial West Africa and even a complex system of bells used in ancient China which resulted in the mathematization of the harmonic system.

"Dark Side" Warnings From The Past

But one discussion called the “Dark Side of the Metroscape” was intriguing. Not just because I just happened to be writing on “The Measurement Trap” when I picked up the book, but because it seems that over the course of history there has been a very large body of commentary warning of a “dark side” to measurement!  While Plato wrote in the Republic, "the best part of the human soul is the part which puts trust in measurement and calculating", A few other historical examples disagreed:

  • Czech folklore warned that children under six were not to be measured for clothes, lest they become “runts”
  • The Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz wrote: “The compass, the scales, the yardstick – apply but to lifeless bodies”
  • The German philosopher Martin Heidegger warned that the successes of measurement can “give us the impression that is the only way to get a better grip on the world”

As the author surmises, The social impact of using measuring to establish intelligence…demotes the importance of anything that does not involve measurement, and augmenting the importance of anything that does”.

Wow, who knew measurement was such a heavy topic!?  But that is exactly the point when I refer to Measurement as a “Trap”.  Because technology now allows us to create literally dozens of ways to measure the same event (i.e. your e-mail campaign or your web-site traffic), it also makes it easier than ever to be fatally distracted from the things that really matter.

Escaping the Measurement Trap

For example, as a business owner, you might have 100 employees, but you might have only 8 of them reporting directly to you. Of course you are aware of what the rest of them are doing, but you rely on those 8 direct reports to provide you the visibility to the business you need. The same is true for measurement “dashboards”. Of course you can create a hundred or a thousand different metrics, but what are the five or eight or ten that matter most?

A dashboard of 35 metrics is not a tool to help make decisions, it is just a distraction, and takes your focus away from the core metrics that need your attention. HubSpot (a prolific producer of incredibly useful content), recently had a useful post on this topic, discussing the only EIGHT metrics you need to measure website performance. I won’t repeat them here (Please read here if you like, it’s spot-on), but I want to call it out as the perfect example of the minimalist approach you need to ensure measurement plays its role and not become an obsession that distracts you from your business.

So DO go out and measure, BUT take the extra step and do the hard work ahead of time by thinking through what really matters, what is actionable and what drives the business. Not doing that extra work first and tossing together a dashboard of 30-50 metrics is not only a bit lazy, but is a danger to your business for the level of distraction it creates.


*World In The Balance – The Historic Quest for an Absolute System of Measurement (by Robert P.Crease, 2011, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, NY)