by Leon Rosenshein


"What gets measured gets managed - even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so."

Peter Drucker

"It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

W. Edwards Deming

“Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure.”

Russell Ackoff

"Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave."

Eliyahu Goldratt

You’ve probably heard shortened versions of the first two. “What gets measured gets managed” and “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. Now compare the common, well known, shortened version to the full quote. In context the meaning is very different. But that never stopped a good quote from entering the zeitgeist. Or putting the new cover sheet on all your TPS reports. And it’s not just conventional wisdom. I’ve been in multiple training sessions over the years where the shortened, incorrect versions were used. That’s a real problem because all it does is cement the problem.

Beyond the misunderstanding, the real problem with the short version is that they lead directly to the second two quotes. That’s the real problem. Measuring how much value a team has added, especially when a company is pre-revenue is hard. You can’t look at a bump in sales or monthly average users. There are no downloads to count or even user comments to look at. What you can do though is measure activity. Like tickets opened/closed, PRs landed, or documents written. Things like that are simple and easy to measure. And get you a new minivan.

As is often the case, the antidote to incomplete understanding is to go back and look at what was actually said. Don’t just measure something because you can. First, measure something because the information conveyed by the measurement actually helps you manage things in the direction you want to go. If it doesn’t, stop measuring it.

Second, manage the things you need to manage. Some things, like the average response time of an RPC is measurable. It makes sense to track it. And do something when it’s demonstrably below a threshold. But when you don’t have a direct, explicit measurement for it there’s probably a qualitative measurement. Unmeasurable doesn’t mean unknowable. You can’t measure the happiness or energy level of a team, but you can tell if it’s higher or lower than it has been. That’s important information. Use it.

So instead of measuring what you can and then managing that data, manage so that value is added. So that, even when no one is watching, the decisions that get made all day long, the little tiny ones, are made in a way that value gets added. Which means we’re back to talking about culture. Again.