Measurement: Friend or Foe?

It seems that the world is becoming obsessed with measurement.  We are measuring steps, heart rate, calories, sleep—you name it and there is a device to measure it. People are going to waste a lot of time and money on measurement because, for many, it won’t change a thing.  It seems that everyone believes the old adage What gets measured gets done.”  Of course that is wrong.  Just because my Fitbit measures my steps each day does not cause me to walk 10,000 steps.   Just because I weigh myself every day does not mean that I have met my weight goal.  As a matter of fact, I have lost almost no weight even though I have had a Fitbit scale for over a year. This may sound strange coming from someone who has helped managers and executives focus time and effort on measuring all sorts of variables in business. However, it is true, and there is a very clear reason as to why.

I believe a more appropriate adage is, “What gets measured improves the chances of getting done.”  Measurement should be looked at as a tool, whereby what makes the difference is what happens to the person as a result of changes in the variable being measured (i.e. the consequences to the performer).  If measurement just becomes a prompt for a better way to nag, punish or deliver other consequences that the person doesn’t want, then the measure will likely produce unreliable improvement, be ignored, or if possible the measures may even be lost.  If the consequences are primarily positive, the person will be more likely to improve the measure, get others to use it and tout the changes it made in their behavior. However, few things that are worthwhile are simple to do.  If they were, everyone would be doing them.  If you want to lose weight, put a chart of your weight on your refrigerator, weigh yourself every day, and you will probably lose up to three pounds. This will work for almost any result that you track. 

However, in most cases the result will be short lived because eventually the consequence (knowing your weight) will become less effective.  There are many apps that track behavior and survive only because they get enough new customers who have some short success when they sign on but end up abandoning the device within a short period.

Let me bring you back to my point.  Measurement changes nothing unless it is associated with meaningful consequences to those being measured. When you understand behavior and how habits are formed and sustained, measurement will become a useful tool.  Without such understanding it is a waste of time and money, upsetting more people than it pleases. Below are some things to consider in making measuring behavior or other variables meaningful:

  1. Plan a positive consequence for the activity that is being measured.
  2. Reinforce the behavior without waiting for the result.
  3. Rewards (incentives, as some call them) should be considered necessary but not sufficient.
  4. Rewards should be relevant to the performer—know what is reinforcing to the person or variable being measured (Fitbit Awards Badges—I have no idea how many I have or for what.)
  5. Track behavior since it will provide many more opportunities to positively reinforce improvement as reflected by the measure.

In today’s world, most people have a desire to know how they are doing. If that information leads to meaningful consequences to the one being measured then performance will improve, guaranteed.  But keep in mind if it doesn’t, that means that a design error has been made by the person measuring and not necessarily by a lack of motivation on the part of the person being measured.


Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.