The Tyranny of Metrics

By | February 8, 2018
The Tyranny of Metrics

How the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government

Today, organizations of all kinds are ruled by the belief that the path to success is quantifying human performance, publicizing the results, and dividing up the rewards based on the numbers. But in our zeal to instill the evaluation process with scientific rigor, we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. The result is a tyranny of metrics that threatens the quality of our lives and most important institutions. In this timely and powerful book, Jerry Muller uncovers the damage our obsession with metrics is causing–and shows how we can begin to fix the problem.

Filled with examples from education, medicine, business and finance, government, the police and military, and philanthropy and foreign aid, this brief and accessible book explains why the seemingly irresistible pressure to quantify performance distorts and distracts, whether by encouraging “gaming the stats” or “teaching to the test.” That’s because what can and does get measured is not always worth measuring, may not be what we really want to know, and may draw effort away from the things we care about. Along the way, we learn why paying for measured performance doesn’t work, why surgical scorecards may increase deaths, and much more. But metrics can be good when used as a complement to—rather than a replacement for—judgment based on personal experience, and Muller also gives examples of when metrics have been beneficial.

Complete with a checklist of when and how to use metrics, The Tyranny of Metricsis an essential corrective to a rarely questioned trend that increasingly affects us all.

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Metrics

  1. The Sampler
    1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Pay attention to, and read, this book, …, February 7, 2018
    The Sampler (Chatham NJ 07928) –

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    Pay attention to, and read, this book, it conveys a warning that everyone of us should be sensitive too.
    Years ago, I discovered that if someone said “10” in a meeting, the discussion was over — no one would argue with “10.”
    We cannot let that unquestioning reaction to numbers continue.
  2. Clay Garner
    4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    “Because belief in efficacy seems to outlast evidence that it frequently doesn’t work, metric fixation has elements of a cult’’, January 24, 2018
    Clay Garner (Hanford, CA United States) –

    Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    This review is from: The Tyranny of Metrics (Kindle Edition)
    “Because belief in its efficacy seems to outlast evidence that it frequently doesn’t work, metric fixation has elements of a cult.’’

    ‘Cult’! What? . . .

    “Studies that demonstrate its lack of effectiveness are either ignored, or met with the assertion that what is needed is more data and better measurement. Metric fixation, which aspires to imitate science, too often resembles faith.’’ (19)

    The line between ‘science’ and ‘faith’ is hard to ‘measure’.

    Where else measurements silly?

    “To demand or preach mechanical precision, even in principle, in a field incapable of it is to be blind and to mislead others,” as the British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin noted in an essay on political judgment. Indeed what Berlin says of political judgment applies more broadly:”

    ‘In a field incapable of measurement’; what is needed?

    “judgment is a sort of skill at grasping the unique particularities of a situation, and it entails a talent for synthesis rather than analysis, “a capacity for taking in the total pattern of a human situation, of the way in which things hang together.”

    “A feel for the whole and a sense for the unique are precisely what numerical metrics cannot supply.’’

    Chapter 4 “Why Metrics became so Popular’’

    “The demand for measured accountability and transparency waxes as trust wanes.’’

    Where more trust found?

    “In societies with an established, transgenerational upper class, the members of that class are more likely to feel secure in their positions, to trust one another, and to have imbibed a degree of tacit knowledge about how to govern from their families, giving them a high degree of confidence in their judgments.’’

    Well. . .what are most. . .

    “By contrast, in meritocratic societies with more open and changing elites, those who reach positions of authority are less likely to feel secure in their judgments, and more likely to seek seemingly objective criteria by which to make decisions. And numbers convey the air of objectivity; they imply the exclusion of subjective judgment.“ (39)

    Numbers never lie! (Some medieval cities burned mathematicians)

    1 The Argument in a Nutshell
    2 Recurring Flaws

    3 The Origins of Measuring and Paying for Performance
    4 Why Metrics Became So Popular
    5 Principals, Agents, and Motivation
    6 Philosophical Critiques

    Case Studies

    14 When Transparency Is the Enemy of Performance: Politics, Diplomacy, Intelligence, and Marriage

    15 Unintended but Predictable Negative Consequences
    16 When and How to Use Metrics: A Checklist

    Last page . . .

    “Remember that sometimes, recognizing the limits of the possible is the beginning of wisdom. Not all problems are soluble, and even fewer are soluble by metrics. It’s not true that everything can be improved by measurement, or that everything that can be measured can be improved. Nor is making a problem more transparent necessarily a step to its solution.’’

    Recognizing limits is. . .is. . .painful.

    “Transparency may make a troubling situation more salient, without making it more soluble. In the end, there is no silver bullet, no substitute for actually knowing one’s subject and one’s organization, which is partly a matter of experience and partly a matter of unquantifiable skill.’’

    Skill is precious. Can’t put a number on it!

    “Many matters of importance are too subject to judgment and interpretation to be solved by standardized metrics. Ultimately, the issue is not one of metrics versus judgment, but metrics as informing judgment, which includes knowing how much weight to give to metrics, recognizing their characteristic distortions, and appreciating what can’t be measured. In recent decades, too many politicians, business leaders, policymakers, and academic officials have lost sight of that.’’

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