Numbers (and the magic of measuring the right thing)

What you measure usually gets paid attention to, and what you pay attention to, usually gets better.

Numbers supercharge measurement, because numbers are easy to compare.

Numbers make it difficult to hide.

And hence the problem.

Income is easy to measure, and so we fall into the trap that people who make more money are better, or happier, or somehow more worthy of respect and dignity.

Likes are easy to measure, so social media becomes a race to the bottom, where the panderer and the exhibitionist win.

Five star reviews are easy to measure, so creators feel the pressure to get more of them.

But wait!

What does it mean to 'win'? Is maximizing the convenient number actually going to produce the impact and the outcome you wanted?

Is the most important work always the most popular? Does widespread acceptance translate into significant impact? Or even significant sales? Is the bestseller list also the bestbook list?

Who are these reviews from? Are they based on expectations (a marketing function) or are they based on the change you were trying to make? It turns out that great books and great movies get more than their fair share of lousy reviews–because popular items attract more users, and those users might not be people you were seeking to please.

Or consider graduation rates. The easiest way to make them go up is to lower standards. Or to get troublesome students to transfer to other institutions or even to get them arrested. When we lose track of what's important in our rush to keep track of what's measurable, we fail.

The right numbers matter. A hundred years ago, Henry Ford figured out how to build a car far cheaper than his competitors. He was selling the Model T for a fraction of what it cost other companies to even make one of their cars. And so measuring the cost of manufacture became urgent and essential.

And farmers discovered the yield was the secret to their success, so tons per acre became the most important thing to measure. Until people started keeping track of flavor, nutrition and side effects.

And then generals starting measuring body count…

When you measure the wrong thing, you get the wrong thing. Perhaps you can be precise in your measurement, but precision is not significance.

On the other hand, when you are able to expose your work and your process to the right thing, to the metric that actually matters, good things happen.

We need to spend more time figuring out what to keep track of, and less time actually obsessing over the numbers that we are already measuring.