One of the most common management myths wrongly attributed to both management gurus W Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker was

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

What’s interesting is that, it seems that neither management guru ever said that phrase: see here and here.

What’s even more interesting is that both management gurus had very nuanced views on the unmeasurable.

Deming’s original quote was actually the exact reverse of the quote attributed to him:

It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

– W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics.

In the case of Drucker, he did emphasise the importance of accountability and measurement of results, but he also emphasised on the intangibles (taken from the the Drucker institute, emphasis mine):

Drucker’s take on measurement was quite nuanced. Yes, he certainly did believe that measuring results and performance is crucial to an organization’s effectiveness. “Work implies not only that somebody is supposed to do the job, but also accountability, a deadline and, finally, the measurement of results —that is, feedback from results on the work and on the planning process itself,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices.

But for all that, Drucker also knew that not everything could be held to this standard. “Your first role . . . is the personal one,” Drucker told Bob Buford, a consulting client then running a cable TV business, in 1990. “It is the relationship with people, the development of mutual confidence, the identification of people, the creation of a community. This is something only you can do.” Drucker went on: “It cannot be measured or easily defined. But it is not only a key function. It is one only you can perform.”

What a wonderful insight. When it comes to people, not everything that goes into being effective can be captured by some kind of metric. Not enthusiasm. Not alignment with an organization’s mission. Not the willingness to go above and beyond. True, a 360-degree review might pick up on some of these qualities, but often poorly.

A very real consequence of most transformations is an even stronger focus on what is visible and measurable: KPIs. Initiatives. Roles & their clarity. Lists of Priority companies.

Because it’s visible and measureable, we then overlook the invisible and unmeasureable, and focus on the “easy” task of optimizing for the visible and measureable, often at the cost of the invisible & unmeasureable, which then shows up years later in the form of reduced visible & measureable metrics.

This bias came up when my team gave a briefing to a bunch of EDB managers, where we were briefing them on an initiative that involved EDB’s networks. One of the first questions raised after our briefing was “is there really a problem, if our officers are already hitting our targets and delivering what EDB has set out to do?” On the surface, it seemed a very reasonable question. But it also seemed to me to reveal the bias towards the visible & measureable, and the bias then leads to a very significant blindspot, since industry development work is very dependent on networks.

Another illustration.
Imagine a dialogue with your human loved one at home, about the State of the Union.

You: Dear, how do you feel about our relationship?

Loved One: It’s good: I give us a 0.8 out of 1. We have been going out every week on date night, so we hit our KR of going on 52 dates last year. We also went to 3 out of the 5 Micheline-starred restaurants we wanted to go to, which is why we didn’t get a full score on that KR. Both KRs contribute to our Objective of “Improve our relationship”, and both are equally weighted, hence the 0.5 + 0.3 = 0.8.

You: yes, I agree. We did well. But our relationship feels a bit weak…

Loved One: Is there a problem if we hit our OKR?

(Thankfully, my wife doesn’t talk like that at all! If anything she’s amazingly empathic, kind, and emotionally intelligent. 🙂 ).

On the Loved One’s focus is on finding measureable proxies to unmeasurable things, the implicit assumption is that the measureable proxies are good proxies, and is better than nothing. Which is an assumption many people have.

But the proxy is not The Thing.

Are you better off focusing on setting the “right” relationship OKRs, or are you better off focusing on just listening and talking to your loved one? I think the latter approach seems to work better, because there’s no assumption that you can measure it. I think most people who are good at relationships will appreciate and understand that.

So why do we switch off that side of our brain when it comes to work and managing people? Why do we so frequently avoid, dismiss the unmeasureable stuff as “unimportant”, including asking “is there a problem” just because we can’t see it?

Just because you can’t measure, doesn’t make it unimportant.

Just because you can’t measure doesn’t mean you can’t understand.

And just because you CAN measure doesn’t mean you really understand.

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