The Measure Of All Things

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

It’s a familiar refrain, one I hear quite often. There’s even some truth to it, at least for those things that are easily measureable. After all, if you want to keep track of how many widgets you are stamping out, maximize efficiency, profit, and so forth, then it really does help to be able to measure it. If you’re mixing ingredients for a cake, it helps be able to precisely measure out a cup of sugar or three eggs. The problem is, not everything quite so easily lends itself to being measured. Take, for example, enthusiasm.

Enthusiasm is something everyone wants; let’s face it, unenthusiastic employees are particularly hard to motivate, whereas enthusiastic people are very much self-motivated. Enthusiasm, however, is difficult to measure. The most common attempt to measure something like enthusiasm is to look for things that might indicate enthusiasm: perhaps people arriving early and leaving late is a good marker of enthusiasm. On the other hand, perhaps neither of those behaviors are markers of enthusiasm. After all, why should they be? I admit that it seems likely that they are, but seeming likely is no guarantee of anything. In this case, we’re falling into the trap of grabbing onto something that easy to track and using it to measure the thing we care about. That’s sort of like using a tape measure to determine the correct quantity of flour for a cake simply because the tape measure is handy and the measuring cup is not. In fact, while some people manifest enthusiasm by showing up early and leaving late, others manifest enthusiasm through greater intensity of focus for shorter periods of time or by coming up with ideas at weird hours and so forth. The manifestation depends a lot on the person and the job to be done.

A related problem is confusing how we’re trying measure a thing for the thing itself. In this case, after deciding that coming in early and staying late must be valid ways to measure enthusiasm, someone comes up with the brilliant idea if you just require that everyone arrive early and leave late then they will become enthusiastic. In fact, quite the opposite is likely to occur. A Geiger counter measures radioactivity, but, outside of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, rewiring a Geiger counter so it clicks wildly doesn’t make the area radioactive.

So, we have a problem. We don’t want measure something by just picking the most convenient yardstick and hoping that it works. We also don’t want to mistake that convenient yardstick, or even an accurate yardstick, for the thing we’re trying to measure. What do we do?

At root, measuring is just a way of comparing two things. A ruler lets us measure length by comparing the length of an object to something – the ruler – with a known length. A Geiger counter lets us measure radioactivity by translating radiation into something we can hear. Thus, if we want to measure enthusiasm, we need to figure out what things we really are trying to compare with one another. Does enthusiasm mean less failure work? Does it mean fewer bugs in the product? More work done in a shorter time? How about greater creativity or a desire to come up with novel solutions to problems? Or maybe people coming up with unexpected and imaginative ways to approach their jobs? Any of the above, but not all of them at once?

Measuring by comparison does provide us with an approach to measuring, and potentially managing, things are inherently hard to measure. It does, however, lack a certain level of precision. On the other hand, that may not be all that important. Sometimes, all you really need is a reasonably good sense of which direction you are going.

“If you can’t compare it, you can’t manage it,” isn’t quite as snappy or as simple as “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” but it is more useful. You just have to find the right points of comparison and be willing to work with a certain degree of imprecision. Once you can do that, it’s amazing how many different, and effective, ways there are to manage the things you can’t measure.

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