Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires | Aeon Ideas - Deepstash

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Data Isn't Everything: The Plague Of Metric Fixation

Data Isn't Everything: The Plague Of Metric Fixation

More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon: metric fixation. The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardised data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organisations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.

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Metric Fixation Starts With School

Metric Fixation Starts With School

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivise gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximise the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organisation.

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Metric Based Incentives Invite Gaming

Metric Based Incentives Invite Gaming

When reward is tied to measured performance, metric fixation invites just this sort of gaming. But metric fixation also leads to a variety of more subtle unintended negative consequences. These include goal displacement, which comes in many varieties: when performance is judged by a few measures, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a pay rise or raising the stock price at the time that stock options are vested), people focus on satisfying those measures – often at the expense of other, more important organisational goals that are not measured.

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Discouraging Innovation And Initiative

Discouraging Innovation And Initiative

Contrary to common sense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. 

The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics they are incentivised to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, indeed that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. 

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Dumbing Down Work

Dumbing Down Work

Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do.

Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measurable.

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Repelling Quality And Creativity

Repelling Quality And Creativity

Large-scale organisations of our society are the poorer for driving out staff most likely to innovate and initiate. The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box.

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