Taking measurement’s measure


“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.

7 thoughts on “Taking measurement’s measure

  1. Daniel C.

    Huh, not measuring…what’s the killer app?

    In all seriousness, I’m on board with the counterculture, but got any ideas about how the measured might go about kick starting (pun!!) one amongst the measurers? I’m having trouble with this myself. Maybe instead of sit-ins we now stage stand-ups?

  2. William O.

    Great post Nick.

    Your comment and supporting Frost quote about the different meanings of “measure” is an excellent example of why I enjoy your writing. The discussion of technology is often framed as a binary debate: you’re either a luddite or a technophile. Your writing never fails to elicit interesting thoughts in exploring the grey area between these two extremes.

    Could you please provide additional information on where the Frost quote comes from?

  3. Sam

    I’d love a link to “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.” before I begin wielding this quote. THANKS

  4. Jim Nielsen

    “It’s dangerous to take what’s measurable for what’s important”. Similarly, it can be dangerous to take what’s important and try to measure it. This reminds me of F.W. Boreham’s essay, “The Sword of Solomon” which illustrates this point through the story of the judgement of King Solomon:

    “There is a sense in which two and two are four, the plane of ledgers and cashbooks – on which these propositions are approximately sound. But if you rise from that plane to a loftier one, you will find at once that they are untenable … it is obviously untrue that half-a-baby and half-a-baby make a baby. Let the sword do its deadly work… The two halves of a baby make no baby at all. On this higher plane of human sentiment and experience, the laws of mathematics collapse completely … No man who has once fallen in love will ever be persuaded that one and one are only two. He looks at her, and feels that one plus one would be a million … No happy couple into the sweet shelter of whose home a little child has come will ever be convinced that two and one are only three. Life has been enriched a thousandfold by the addition of that one little life to theirs. And I am certain that no pair from whose clinging and protecting arms their treasure has been snatched will find comfort in the assurance that one from three leaves two. In the great crises of life one’s faith in figures breaks down hopelessly.”

  5. Laraine

    Perfectly said, “If you measure it, the meaning will come.” That idea is everywhere. But I wonder if those in love with collecting data even care if there is a meaning beyond the tracking of tastes and needs in order to, presumably, more efficiently sell products.

    When I get the “big data will change the world for the better” spiel, I usually cite the cautionary tale of Robert McNamara, who thought he could win the Vietnam War by ignoring people and looking at spread sheets. And we all know how that turned out.

    This blog is a treasure.

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