Why Metrics Drive Mediocrity

We’ve all heard it, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Metrics-driven leadership is now the default. Leaders set numerical goals in an attempt to solve every problem from struggling schools to flagging sales.

But the problem with metrics-driven leadership is that it doesn’t work. The above quote is often attributed to Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the visionary business Measure tapescholar who transformed the auto industry.

But Deming didn’t say that, in fact he said the opposite. He said, “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

When you try to manage by the numbers, be they test scores, sales activity, or productivity measures, you drive towards mediocrity. Quantitative (numerical) measurements alone will never make an organization great, because it is the qualitative (non numerical) elements of performance that achieve greatness.

For example, do you ever watch the Olympics? Do you know how they score ice skating?

Part of the score is for technical merit, and part of the score is for artistic impression. If the scoring were simply based on technical merit, it would be a very figure skaterboring event. It’s the combination of technical merit and artistic impression that make it interesting. The top performers excel in both.

Yet in business, and education, and sadly often in families, we score performance solely on technical merit. Did you cover every element of the content? Did you check all the boxes on the five-step sales process?  Did you pay all the bills on time?

We default to the easy to understand quantitative elements, while completely ignoring the more nuanced qualitative elements. Yet it’s qualitative elements like emotional engagement, passion, and purpose that are critical drivers of success and satisfaction. There are three reasons why organizations exclusively focus on numerical measures:

  1. Lack of trust in management

Leaders don’t trust the managers (or themselves) to make judgment calls. Numbers feel safer. Test scores are easy to measure. Organizations default to numbers because they assume that evaluating something as nuanced as emotional engagement is too hard to measure. Only it’s not.

Think about ice skating. I’m not an ice skater, none of my kids have ever been ice skaters; my knowledge of the sport comes entirely from watching the Olympics. Yet with a minimal amount of training from sports commentators, I can usually pick the winners. I know how to judge artistic impression. And so do you.

People know great performance when they see it. Leaders can tell when someone cares about their team; students can tell when their teacher is passionate about the subject. Managers need to be trusted to have some judgment.

  1. Fear about fairness

When you open things up to interpretation, it’s never going to be perfect. There’s always the odd judge with bias. It doesn’t matter.  In an organization setting, if you put forth a qualitative metric, like emotional engagement, and people are able to rate it with 75% accuracy, that’s a huge improvement over not having it. Yes, people will whine that it’s subjective. Too bad. When you dumb the measurements down to the lowest level, you dumb the performance down to the lowest level. In my experience, you rarely hear top performers whining about fairness.

  1. It’s hard

Nuance is challenging; it takes discernment. That’s exactly why we should do it instead of avoiding it.  As Deming said, “We have to bring back the individual. Management has smothered the individual.” Numbers matter, they tell a story, but when it comes to improving performance, true greatness is found in the nuance.