Your work can’t be measured by a number

A friendly PSA not to get caught up in chasing numbers, targets, or otherwise thinking that just because something can be measured that it matters.

I think we all, at some point or another, have been beholden to “meet a target” with our work, or have felt pressure to get a particular metric or score to feel like we are meeting expectations, that our business matters, or in the case of our kids, that we are intelligent and halfway decent human beings. Hey standardized tests! I’m looking at you!! 😠

In my role at work, there are “measures” for almost everything we do that can, if you let them, add stress to an otherwise awesome work experience. The key, of course, is not to let the measures get to you, to use them as a guidepost and helpful tool as you blissfully focus on quality above all. But even though there is no corporate overlord where I work (I left that a while ago), I’m still human, and when there is a number staring at me the insecure-paranoid-overachiever brain can still somehow invade my thoughts.

A worst-case scenario of the stress that measurements can have is outlined neatly in a recent article from Your Thinking Rate Is Fixed. Meeting a measurement often (falsely) implies the need to hurry up and do more, which has a short shelf-life:

Staying late might work once in a while. Again, though, its effects are limited. If we keep doing it night after night, we run out of energy, our personal lives suffer, and we make worse decisions as a result.

When you’re under pressure, the quality of your decisions plummets. You miss possible angles, you don’t think ahead, you do what makes sense now, you panic, and so on. Often, you make a snap judgment then grasp for whatever information will support it for the people you work with. You don’t have breathing room to stress-test your decisions.

I think we all know this concept intuitively, but why do we still create systems that push us into that pressurized state continuously? In The fallacy of “what gets measured gets managed” Anne-Laure Le Cunff debunks a commonly held belief about measurements:

The problem is not so much with measurement in general; it’s with blind measurement and the belief that measurement is intrinsically good.

Anne-Laure also offers some good advice on how to make measurement more “mindful”:

Make your peace with the fact that some performance indicators simply cannot be measured. Innovation, creativity, enthusiasm, expertise… Are all impossible to truly measure.

This last part is super-important. It’s really hard NOT to want to reduce things to numbers. I’m guessing this is just because we are all a little lazy by nature. Still, it certainly pervades many small and large technology companies and, as illustrated in The Microwave Economy by David Perell, goes pretty deep:

As Mumford observed almost a century ago, the world loses its soul when we place too much weight on the ideal of total quantification. By doing so, we stop valuing what we know to be true, but can’t articulate. Rituals lose their significance, possessions lose their meaning, and things are valued only for their apparent utility. To resist the totalizing, but ultimately short-sighted fingers of quantification, many cultures invented words to describe things that exist but can’t be defined. Chinese architecture follows the philosophy of Feng Shui, which describes the invisible — but very real — forces that bind the earth, the universe, and humanity together. Taoist philosophy understands “the thing that cannot be grasped” as a concept that can be internalized only through the actual experience of living.1 Moving westward, the French novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” And in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes how quality can’t be defined empirically because it transcends the limits of language. He insists that quality can only be explained with analogies, summarizing his ideas as such: “When analytic thought, the knife, is applied to experience, something is always killed in the process.” All these examples use different words to capture the same idea.

As a society, it’s as if we’ve read too many blog posts about the 80/20 rule. When you strip away too much of the non-essential, you lose the kind of craftsmanship that endows an object with soul and makes the world feel alive.

OK the last example is not about measurements at work specifically but it gets to the underlying challenge that we can’t quantify quality. What makes you great at what you do is much bigger than any number, and that combination of how you do something is your craft. Being great at a craft is what I am after and what makes me proud of the work that I do or the shed that I vent or the drawings I do. Part of that craft is doing well “numbers-wise”, but that is just one small dimension of the whole thing.

So, this is a friendly PSA not to get caught up in chasing numbers, targets, or otherwise thinking that just because something can be measured that it matters.

Enjoy the craft, fellow craftspeople! 🔨💪🏼 📐

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

William Bruce Cameron (often misattributed to Einstein)

Comments welcome!