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The Metric God That Failed

Over the past few decades, formal institutions have increasingly been subjected to performance measurements that define success or failure according to narrow and arbitrary metrics. The outcome should have been predictable: institutions have done what they can to boost their performance metrics, often at the expense of performance itself.

SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND – In 1986, the American management guru Tom Peters popularized the organizational theorist Mason Haire’s dictum that, “What gets measured gets done,” and with it a credo of measured performance that I call “metric fixation.” In time, the devotees of measured performance would arrive at a naive article of faith that is nonetheless appealing for its mix of optimism and scientism: “Anything that can be measured can be improved.”

In the intervening decades, this faith-based conceit has developed into a dogma about the relationship between measurement and performance. Evangelists of “disruption” and “best practices” have carried the new gospel to ever more distant shores. If you work in health care, education, policing, or the civil service, you have probably been subjected to the policies and practices wrought by metric-centrism.

There are three tenets to the metrical canon. The first holds that it is both possible and desirable to replace judgment – acquired through personal experience and talent – with numerical indicators of comparative performance based on standardized data. Second, making such metrics public and transparent ensures that institutions are held accountable. And, third, the best way to motivate people within organizations is to attach monetary or reputational rewards and penalties to their measured performance.

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