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Let's Measure Something Meaningless

Speed-limit-130-stickerImagine that the government decided an intake of 2.500 calories per day should be the maximum for each person, regardless of age, gender, health, metabolism, dietary habits, etc. And imagine that the government also measured and enforced this every day, claiming it is “for your own health”, and handing out daily fines for each person who went over target. How would you feel about this practice?

Now imagine that the government decided that a speed of 130 km/hours should be the maximum for each driver, regardless of age, health, mental condition, road condition, traffic condition, weather condition, or the condition of their cars. And imagine that the government measured and enforced this, claiming it is “for your own safety”, and handing out fines to anyone who went over this “target”. How would you feel about that? Oh, wait… this is an actual practice in many countries!

I drove 14 hours from Bologna to Brussels yesterday, with a proper break every 2 hours, good nutrition, a healthy mind, a well-serviced car, and an excellent track record as a driver. During that trip I saw people not using their indicator lights when switching lanes, people overtaking others on the emergency lane, people using their mobile phones, and people driving vehicles that barely deserved the name “car”. And among those many thousands of drivers, I’m sure there were also some with mental problems, physical problems, mechanical problems, etc. However, the one who got picked out by the government was me. I got flashed twice because I drove “too fast”.

For every complex goal, there is a metric that is clear simple and wrong.

In organizations we see this all the time. Managers have a goal, such as faster time-to-market or higher productivity. But productivity is a very complex thing. It depends on motivation, creativity, innovation, collaboration, etc. And managers can’t measure all that stuff easily. So they reduce the metric to the simplest possible thing that can be measured with a computer: the number of hours people are physically at the office. And then they turn it into a target: the computer requires at least 8! Or else…

Measuring something meaningful is hard, so let’s measure something that is meaningless but easy.

Measuring real safety on the streets for everyone is next to impossible, so the government reduces it to the simplest possible metric that can be delegated to computers: speed.

I fear the day when governments find a way to have computers measure our daily intake of calories.

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