Be Careful What You Measure

by Peter Saint-Andre


In business, it's often said that "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it." This aphorism is frequently attributed to Peter Drucker, although wrongly; instead it's pulled from a saying by quality expert W. Edwards Deming, despite the fact that his point was the exact opposite: "It is wrong to suppose that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it – a costly myth."

Yet this costly myth not only persists but causes damage far beyond the business world. Consider a recent essay by research scientist Peter Gray, in which he offers a compelling argument that the significant rise in teen suicide since 2008 can be attributed largely to a misguided culture of measurement in American schools. Specifically, in response to the No Child Left Behind legislation passed in 2001, students (and thus indirectly their teachers and schools) have been measured incessantly through standardized tests, causing ubiquitous teaching to the test and endless pressure on students to perform, perform, perform. Aside from causing thousands of deaths by suicide, all this testing doesn't even measure anything meaningful, for a full understanding of the world around us isn't something that a standardized test can quantify.

Here's a much more ancient example: the Nicene Creed. In the early Christian community, the emerging orthodoxy felt keen competition from the Gnostics, who emphasized the gradual attainment of wisdom and spiritual insight. That was too much work for the orthodox, who instituted something much simpler: a creed which anyone could recite, whether mindfully or mindlessly - but if they didn't, they could be quickly dismissed as a heretic. Aside from causing several genocidal atrocities such as the Albigensian crusade, the Nicene Creed doesn't even measure anything meaningful, for authentic wisdom and spirituality can be judged only through intensive - I would even say loving - interaction among the individuals involved.

These are only two examples that illustrate a more general maxim: be careful what you measure!

(Cross-posted at


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