What Gets Measured Gets Managed

But what matters most can’t always be measured

It was Peter Drucker who said,

“What gets measured gets improved.”

And not to take it up with the father of 20th Century management philosophy himself, because he had a ton of good shit to say, but what that statement forgot to account for was whether or not we should be improving everything that’s measurable — and ignoring everything that’s not.

We like measurable things because, well, they’re easy

You know if you lost 10 pounds. You know if you got a raise. You know if you’re making sales and making margin; you know if you’re growing (or should.)

We like numbers because they give us a sense of control — something to divide and conquer; something to delegate; something to break down into easy, bite-size tasks. We can put numbers in spreadsheets and we can run data; we can add them up and break them down. Numbers are clean; black and white; an easy domain.

Like, as a Medium writer, I can look at all kinds of quantifiable factors when it comes to a popular post: word count, title word count, use of a number in the title, posts per day, etc. You can even track views, reads, claps and new followers.

But those aren’t what make a good post. And regardless of whether your goal is new followers or revenue or simply good writing, tracking and improving every single one of these metrics across the board guarantees you nothing — and you could still end up with shit. Because a successful piece isn’t in word count or title, but rather the immeasurable qualities — the voice, the tone, the story, the authenticity… the actual writing.

And this is just as true for anything.

Good personal relationships aren’t built on x number of dates per week or spending x on a birthday gift or listening for x number of minutes, and it isn’t measured in number of sighs vs. smiles.

Likewise, good businesses aren’t built on frequency of triggered emails or number of discounts — or cost per acquisition or customer lifetime value or bounce rate. These are important metrics, sure, and they’re worth managing — but they are not where success actually happens.

It’s what’s behind and inside these things, not these things on the surface, that makes or breaks a company.

But that doesn’t make them the most meaningful

Especially when it comes to people.

Because you probably think I’m here to talk idealism — to talk happiness and magic. But I’m not. At least not entirely. Not any more than I need to in order to simply talk about about people — who are inherently messy and imperfect and utterly irrational, which means that while people’s behavior is measurable, it is nearly impossible to measure our motivations.

And motivations, my friends, are why people do things.

Digital markers are sometimes obsessed with metrics. We talk acronyms like we’re on the trading floor of the stock exchange, and racking them up like they’re boy scout badges. How good can you get? How low; how high; what’s your focus?

It makes sense, of course — see ole Drucker’s advice, just above. What gets measured gets improved. But sometimes we chase the measurable at the cost of the meaningful, and then we confuse causation with correlation and we forget cause and effect.

Measurable information can tell you what — what’s happening; what people are doing, and what they’ve already done. It can even give you an idea of what they probably will do.

But measurable information can’t tell you why something is happening. Or why people do what they do.

Why do people actually do what they do? Why do they fall in love? Why do they buy your products? (Or, perhaps worse: why they haven’t, or won’t? Either count.)

Number don’t actually tell why people do what they do. (And we ourselves don’t actually know why we bought, either, though most of us can offer up some pretty creative explanations we’ll pass off as “reasons.”) The best numbers can do is give us something to stand up in place of richer knowledge, to chase and improve and hope that if we stack enough of them up, they’ll work themselves out into a better top or bottom line.

And that’s fine — we should do that. But we should also be working to understand people. Their problems, their needs, their wants, their fears, their motivations, their insecurities, their aspirations and boredoms and values. All that shit.

And it’s the combination of knowing both what and why — the measurable and the messy — that holds the real power in management. And improvement.

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