It’s the Law!

I’m fascinated by metrics and measurement. Ironically, I don’t care about the numbers, I’m riveted by how the act of measuring something causes people to act differently. You can see it all sorts of activities. Dieters obsess over calorie intake, businesses track growth measures, we’ve been watching how unemployment rates are tracking. In the past, Ryan’s written about Time To Last Contact, and I’ve mentioned measuring for experimentation – you get the idea. My colleague David Webster puts it well, he says ‘you get more of what you measure for’. By measuring something, you’re telegraphing to the organization it’s important and you’re inviting our competitive attitudes to optimize around whatever we’re following.

(People especially seem to love numbers that go up; The Dow, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, salaries, and so on.)

None of this is really much of a revelation, but the idea is still significant. Measurement is the bridge that links innovation to execution. It’s how you understand if your good idea is actually good, and it’s how you’ll move from concept to constant.

Given all this, I was really interesting to learn about Goodharts Law (via Boing Boing.) It’s a little wordy, but it basically states that people pay attention to the things that are measured, and because of this extra attention things that are measured change. (That’s is basically more or less what I wrote earlier.) I have to admit, I’m sort of surprised that this maxim hasn’t surfaced sooner, since 60% of the business articles in the past five years seemed to have been about innovation and/or metrics.

So where do we go from here? Well for me, this all makes a pretty good case for being very careful how you design your measures – what you monitor, how you think about it, and how you share this with a larger audience. The small but important point is that no one really said measuring things makes them any better, it just gives them more attention. Where it goes from there is all a matter of design.

Measure the change you want to see – it’s the law.

2 comments

  1. Peter Drucker has a great saying that “What gets measured, gets managed.” I’ve always been fascinated by how this relates to intuitive activities like design, creativity and empathy.

    The two perspectives are different, but not irreconcilable. The new research you’ve spotted definitely makes the case that we need to use both numbers and emotion to drive design.

  2. Nice point Peter.

    I’m noticing the two less and less irreconcilable these days. When it’s done right (which is still rare), the numbers can inspire emotions and emotions can inspire the numbers.

    I’m finding that gaming mechanics are a really good way to pull this off. Like the Toyta Prius energy display – it shows you how much fuel you’re saving which inspires you to try to save more.

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