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Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires

Every company has a Judgement Day. Once in a while the peer reviews will roll in, the managers will require a self-evaluation, and you will be Judged. No matter what you do you’ll be assigned a rating, a number, a metric, and your job will be given a score out of ten or out of four. For a long time I’ve felt that this is a monumental waste of time but I’ve never been able to put this feeling into words.

Thankfully I don’t have to though because Jerry Muller has made my case for me in a brilliant piece for Aeon where he argues that measuring people and their performance is a thoroughly bad idea:

More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’. The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivise gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximise the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organisation. If the rate of major crimes in a district becomes the metric according to which police officers are promoted, then some officers will respond by simply not recording crimes or downgrading them from major offences to misdemeanours. Or take the case of surgeons. When the metrics of success and failure are made public – affecting their reputation and income – some surgeons will improve their metric scores by refusing to operate on patients with more complex problems, whose surgical outcomes are more likely to be negative. Who suffers? The patients who don’t get operated upon.

I think I’ve moaned about useless data-gathering and data-fetishism in the past, but Jerry’s argument is a compelling one: most data collection is bullshit and putting a number on someone often makes them an immediately worse person. I’ve seen this countless times in my career – I’ve watched how folks can weasel their way through the report cards and self evaluations while genuinely talented, brilliant folks are crushed by a mindless, apathetic bureaucracy.

Any who, I really wish I could quote every sentence in this article but since I can’t, this is perhaps my favorite one-two punch from Jerry:

Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.

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