The Measurement Trap

I saw a post today on Seth Godin’s blog about Scientific Management and how it is being extended to white collar workers.  Loosely speaking this is extending the idea that factories measure everything their workers do to ensure they are as efficient as possible to include the work done by almost everyone.  There is always a desire (and perhaps even a need) to measure the work being done in your organization, but if you aren’t careful you will fall into the measurement trap.

The measurement trap has two prongs to catch you.  The first is that you will value only what you measure.  The second is that you will only measure things easy to capture and quality.  Taken together, that’s a nasty one-two punch of valuing that which is easy to measure.  Seth argues that the solution to this is to not play the game at all and just do unmeasurable work:

You will either be seen as a cog, or as a linchpin. You will either be measured in a relentless race to the bottom of the cost barrel, or encouraged in a supportive race to doing work that matters, that only you can do in your unique way.

It’s not easy to be the person who does unmeasurable work, but is there any doubt that it’s worth it?

I understand conceptually what he’s saying, but I disagree that the solution here is to not measure anything.  The solution is to understand what you are measuring and why.  My feeling is that we do need to measure some of those easy things (calls to the help desk, response time, project load, etc.) so that we have some basic understanding of where we as an organization are spending our time.  Once we know that, then the interesting conversation starts.  Are there things we are doing that we could do differently, or stop doing all together?  Are we spending time on the right things?  The goal for me isn’t just to, as Seth says, encourage folks to do work that matters, it’s about freeing up time so they can do some unmeasurable work – the things that will cause unexpected moments of joy and discovery.  Maybe someone wants to spend some time wrapped in not-yetness, or work a problem using design thinking, or something else I’ve never thought of (and there are plenty of those things).

Seth argues that the only way to evade the measurement trap is to measure nothing.  I don’t think that’s true.  You measure things so that you can have time to do the unmeasurable.

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