What gets measured gets done. Sort of…

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What gets measured gets done. Sort of…

This is a common expression when it comes to metrics. And to some extent it is true. In my experience, however, often people fall for the trap of attempting to improve the metric and not the underlying reason for the measurement.

Here’s a prime example. I was talking with my girlfriend about a product that is meant to increase your heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is a measure of recovery. As your body recovers from exercise your heart rate variability increases telling you how ready you are to do the intense exercise again. This product would increase your heart rate variability. But would it actually help you recover? I don’t know. I dropped the conversation with my girlfriend. It wasn’t worth getting into it.

But you see this all the time. We use metrics to measure the progress of some abstract goal. But what inevitably happens is the metric becomes the abstract goal. I call this the KPI fallacy. It’s when the goals shift from trying to improve something that is measured to improving the measurement itself.

Nothing illustrates this more than economic numbers. The unemployment rate is a prime example of this. The metric is a measurement of the number of people in a country who are currently looking for work and can not find it. The unemployment rate is one of the metrics governments use to gauge the health of their economy. Politicians and economists try to reduce the unemployment rate in a country through their policies. The theory is that working people are content people. A flawed idea, but that’s a whole different blog post. The United States currently has a 6.9% unemployment rate.

It is the case that what politicians and economists aim for is human happiness and they hope to use unemployment as a proxy. It is not the case that employment leads to happiness. Case in point North Korea. North Korea has an unemployment rate of 2.7%. This a fantastic unemployment rate and an absolutely terrible place to live. Low unemployment does not perfectly map to prosperous people. It maps to working people. And there are many ways to get people to work that will make them unhappy.

A few more countries with excellent unemployment rates: Cuba 1.6%, Niger 0.5%, Nepal 1.5%, Myanmar 1.7%, Mexico 3.3%. Obviously, low unemployment does not equal a prosperous country

The metric is not the goal. The metric represents the goal. Sometimes the metric represents the metric very well. And sometimes it’s a crude approximation. But in the end, it is a representation and it is flawed.

You wouldn’t tell someone who wanted to lose weight to cut off their leg even though afterward they would weigh less.

Keep the context of your metrics in mind and understand how the metrics work and how they relate to the abstract goal. What gets measured gets done. So make sure you’re measuring the right things.

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