How do we measure up?

Does measurement madness really add value?

02 June 2010, by Tracey Swanepoel

JOHANNESBURG - Are you more than the value of your share price portfolio?

Your company's profitability? Your bonus? Your performance appraisal score? Your weight? Your jogging or cycling time/distance? The reps you do at the gym? Your IQ, bank account or property value? As a nation, are we more than our GDP? Our inflation targets? Interest rates? Currency strength? The list is endless. We seem to spend our lives chasing numbers. In fact an alien from another planet could be forgiven for assuming that the whole purpose of our existence is to answer the question - how are we measuring up?

Obsessed and depressed?

I'm not anti numbers, it's our collective obsession with them that fascinates me. What exactly do numbers do for us? For some of us they give us our identity - we are better than someone else because of our relative position. Kohn's findings around the power of monetary incentives reveals that it's never about the absolute number but rather its relative value ie, what it says about me in relation to the other guy.

For others it's about security - an illusion of control in a world that we simply cannot control. One thing is for sure, the numbers we chase so doggedly, the complex measurement systems we contrive have no impact whatsoever on our happiness. Ever wondered why there's not a "World's 100 Happiest People List"? Martin Seligman's research on happiness confirms that it is precisely the things that we don't or can't measure that have the greatest impact on our happiness: work with purpose; fulfilling relationships with friends and family; gratitude; forgiveness and optimism. More money and higher education levels have no impact at all!

Measurement with meaning

Perversely, our preoccupation with measurement means that like hamsters on a spinning wheel, we may be counting our lives away and sadly missing the point of living while we do it. So what to do? Throwing our carefully calibrated world out with the bathwater is not the answer. Perhaps we need to start by getting the blinkers off. Let's stop chasing numbers and instead pursue measurement with meaning.

When Deming hit us circa 1960 with measurement techniques to improve processes and manufacturing, a corporate sport was born - applying these to human beings. Trumpeting the slogan "you cannot manage what you cannot measure" became to some extent the holy grail of corporate life.

Yet all too often the reality is that no sooner has an elaborate measurement system been designed than creative employees (bless their souls) have figured out a way to work it to their benefit. Measurement quickly loses its value and unravels into a meaningless "tick the box" exercise.

Moreover, the presence of an elaborate measurement scorecard lulls us into thinking that we no longer have to. Think, that is. What did we do without elaborate excel spreadsheets to tell us how we had performed? Without rating scales to objectively determine our opinions of our employees? We applied our minds and engaged our brains, our whole brains that is (the left analytical and right intuitive). It's messy, no argument. It's flawed. It doesn't always work. But it beats a meaningless set of numbers every time.

The best things in life...

Whether we cling to the pursuit of our magic number/s or not, even the most hardened cynic has to acknowledge that we can't and shouldn't measure that stuff that really makes life worth living. The following quote is lengthy but worth reading. Originating from a speech made by Robert Kennedy in the 1960s, it was recently re-quoted by David Cameron in his election campaign. Despite the culture and decade specific references, it's the perfect "full stop" to my argument:

"For too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community value in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product now is over 800bn dollars a year, but that gross national product, if we judge the United States of America by that, that gross national product counts air pollution, and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic squall. It counts Napalm, and it counts nuclear warheads, and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our city. It counts Whitman's rifles and Speck's Knifes and the television programmes, which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet, the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play; it does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans".

Read published article on MoneyWeb site