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Inhibitors of foresight: Measurement and its pitfalls

“Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”   –William Bruce Cameron, sociologist (often attributed to Einstein)

We put a lot on measurement. We say, “what gets measured gets done.” What we can measure takes priority over the subjective and unmeasured.

We expect proof of progress that we can measure. Numbers that we can report or publish prove success. Statistical reports and year-on-year comparisons dominate leadership meetings.

But measurement weakens or fails when we’re dealing with the future. The future does not exist. There is no data. There is nothing we can touch or feel or measure.


1. You can’t measure something that hasn’t happened
The results of a policy, program change, or new business model unfold over time. Any measurable outcome is in the future. We need to start the change process now, ahead of any chance at measured assessment. Yet often managers look for immediate quantitative evidence of success.

EXAMPLE: RotoRooter placed radio ads in my city in the 1970s. Then I didn’t hear any ads for 20+ years. But they had planted an idea (and a jingle) in my head that I used thirty years later when I had a blocked drain. RotoRooter could not have measured that payoff of the ads in the 1970s.

2. New or emerging things are hard to measure and our traditional measurement tools don’t fit
New things need new measures. But we don’t always know what those should be. Or, we may think the measurement tools we have fit when they don’t. Our measurement can give results that lead to wrong assessments and decisions.

EXAMPLE: When a consumer sees a promotional Instagram post, some kind of brand message has gotten across. But such social media marketing is new. What’s the value of that Instagram post to the brand owner? Is it the equal of a TV or print ad? We have numerical measurement tools for those: circulation, impressions, and reach. Do those work for social media messages? We don’t know enough to say. But instinct tells us to use the social media anyway. Our instinct is surely right.

3. We can’t measure some things that matter
Some of the most interesting changes in society and commerce are those that are hard or impossible to measure. Social phenomena, psychic outcomes, and culture and behavior change don’t fit our measurement tools.

EXAMPLE: In education, we don’t know all the payoffs from experiential learning, from collaboration, or from the application of new technology. Common standardized testing doesn’t directly assess those programs. The intellectual outcomes for a child won’t be clear or measured until years later. But mandated standardized testing has to correlate specific parts of curricula to measured assessments, today.

What to do about this

In strategic conversation, consider changes that you won’t be able to assess quantitatively. Allow strategic action that has weak or no measures. Get beyond the tyranny of measurement. To do otherwise is to hamstring organizations and limit positive change.

Image: G. Combe, Elements of Phrenology, 1824, via Wikimedia Commons.

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