Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Measurement Madness

Some of the wisest words I have read in my career come from the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, on the subject of measurement:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. 

The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. 

The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. 

The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.
'Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business'

These words were written in 1972, in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and illustrated what is known as the McNamara fallacy or quantitative fallacy (Robert McNamara was US Secretary for Defence). This fallacy is making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (metrics) and ignoring all others. For example, basing the 'success' of a war purely on enemy body count.

I have often used these words to argue my point with clients and quantitative research agencies that marketing, like war or sport, is not an exact science. There is perhaps a fifth step to the argument:

The fifth step is to attach undue meaning and importance to that which is easily measurable.

These days, with digitalisation, we can measure so much more. And although company and even personal performance can't be put on a par with war and loss of life, we should guard against making the same mistake.

A few years ago, only business people talked about KPIs. Nowadays, people have personal KPIs - calories consumed, steps taken, words written, likes achieved - and all the rest, all enabled by digital technology.

I will continue to cite Yankelovich. And not just to the business clients that I work with, but to friends and acquaintances who are in danger, perhaps, of not seeing the truth for the data.

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