“What can’t be measured can’t be managed” goes the old saw. But what Peter Drucker is reported to have actually said was “What gets measured gets managed,” which is altogether different and altogether wiser. The wisdom becomes clearer when we get the rest of Drucker’s remark:
“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.”
It’s dubious and dangerous, Drucker is saying, to take what’s measurable for what’s important. But he’s also saying something much more radical, even subversive: Some things that can be measured shouldn’t be.
A whole counterculture could, in our big-data moment, be constructed on that one thought. Can you imagine Google or Amazon or Facebook announcing, “We have decided to stop measuring stuff in order to spend some time considering what’s actually worth measuring”? No, today’s ethos is simpler, easier to execute: “If you measure it, the meaning will come.”
“Measure” itself has a few meanings, and it’s worth keeping them all in mind. Consider something Robert Frost said, in speaking to college students in 1956:
“I am always pleased when I see someone making motions like this — like a metronome. Seeing the music measured. Measure always reassures me. Measure in love, in government, measure in selfishness, measure in unselfishness.”
Measure in measurement, too, would seem advisable.
Image: Marcin Wichary.