If You Can’t Measure It, You’d Better Manage It.

28 May 2015

Wait, that’s not it. It’s supposed to be: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is sheer nonsense. If you believe it, get out of management before you do more harm. Or else read on.

Have you ever seen an acceptable measure of culture? Does that mean we can’t manage culture, and so better get rid of it in our organizations? Measuring the market for a novel product is notoriously difficult. Must we get rid of novel products?

And who ever came up with a reliable measure for the performance of management? (Don’t tell me that change in stock price does that.) Indeed, who ever even tried to measure the performance of measurement itself, beyond assuming it is wonderful? So out the window will have to go management and measurement too. We might as well all retire into our laptops.

Someone I know once asked a most senior British civil servant why his department had to do so much measuring. His reply: “What else can we do when we don’t know what’s going on?” Did he ever try getting on the ground to find out what’s going on? And then using judgment to assess that? (Remember judgment? It’s still in the dictionary.)

Measuring as a replacement for managing has done enormous damage—undermining the souls of so many of our institutions (as discussed in last week’s TWOG). Think of how much education has been killed by assuming that we can measure what a child learns in a classroom. (I defy anyone to measure learning. You are reading this TWOG: please measure what you are learning.) Must we always deflect teaching from engaging students to examining them?

Health care has likewise suffered from this cult of obsessive measuring, and not only at the hands of governments. Insurance companies and HMOs, online lenders, etc., as well as physicians obsessed with “evidence-based medicine”, have been just as guilty. And let’s not stop there. This “managing-it-by-measuring-it” has been destroying companies left and right. Amidst all the numbers, where are the new products, what’s the state of the culture?

Measuring as a complement to managing is a fine idea: measure what you can; take seriously what you can’t; and manage both thoughtfully. In other words: If you can’t measure it, you’ll have to manage it. If you can measure it, you’ll especially have to manage it. Have we not had enough of leadership by remote control: sitting in executive offices and running the numbers—all that deeming and downsizing

Last weekend I tweeted proudly that I hit 5000 followers on Twitter. Soon after came a tweet from Suzanne Long (@suzannelong) of Toronto: “Pssst. It's more about whether people read or otherwise engage w/ your tweets that actually counts ...” Ye gods: I have met the enemy and he is not Suzanne Long. Now I’ll have to read this TWOG.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015.

HM works with practicing managers in the IMPM.org, which seeks to change all this. A forthcoming TWOG will discuss “The soft underbelly of hard data”, and why we are so mesmerized by measurement.