Okay, so I promise I am not seeking out articles that discuss the problems with depending on quantitative metrics to determine effectiveness and value. They just keep falling into my lap. This one is via Dan Pink and is kinda fun to read thanks to some animations.
The piece in The Hustle has us follow the “career” of Otis has he moves from being a cashier to sales to online advertising to programming to surgery in order to illustrate how the use of quotas and efficiency metrics permeates every industry and every profession to incentivize gaming the system in order to generate the best appearance.
But Otis came to learn that metrics weren’t inherently bad — his bosses had just failed to grasp two important economic principles:
- Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” and
- Campbell’s Law: The more a metric is used, the more likely it is to “corrupt the process it is intended to monitor.”
He realized that when his performance was measured with a specific metric, he optimized everything to hit it, regardless of the consequences that arose. As a visiting professor at the London School of Economics told him, improper targets could:
- Encourage “gaming” the system (e.g., bagging free groceries)
- Incentivize the wrong aspects of work (e.g., writing trivial code)
- Erode morale (e.g., writing clickbait)
- Harm customers (e.g., turning away critical surgery patients)
And so, Otis decided to start his own company — a company where metrics would serve their true purpose: To motivate and align. Efficiency, Otis finally realized, isn’t just output; it is the value of what is produced.
If you think about the measures being applied to non-profit arts and cultural organizations like overhead ratio, economic impact, test scores, etc and pay attention to what organizations are doing in order to meet those metrics, you will probably start to see behaviors that conform to those listed above.
It could manifest as massaging numbers in financials and research; chasing funding that doesn’t align with mission and strains capacity; superficial efforts that check desired boxes; pursuit of a narrow segment of community rather than a focus on broader inclusion. I am sure readers can think of many examples from their own experiences.