“What is measured, improves,” is an old piece of business wisdom. If you keep track of something, whether it is grades, weight, income or efficiency it usually will get better. This is a good piece of advice, but I feel it’s only half the story. If you end up measuring the wrong things, they might get better–at the expense of what really matters.
One example I’ve experienced is measuring weight. As an indicator of health, or attractiveness, it is incredibly easy to do. All you need is to stand on a scale. But does it measure what it’s supposed to?
I think in a broader sense, weight can be used as an easy measurement of health or attractiveness. But the issue is more complicated. If you increase the amount of muscle, while reducing your amount of fat, you can stay at the same weight level even though your health is improving.
In the last few years of consistent exercise, my weight has changed only slightly. But even though my weight hasn’t changed, I’ve been able to lift more weight, run further and faster and increased on almost every area of fitness. But if I only look at the scale, I’ve barely changed at all.
Low-Hanging Fruit and the Measurement Paradox
The problem I’m talking about applies to a lot more than just weight. It’s a general problem whenever you try to measure, to improve towards a goal. Often you measure what is easiest to record, even when it doesn’t accurately mirror what you want to improve. Weight, like many other measurements are just low-hanging fruit, and not necessarily the best.
Another example I’ve seen a lot of is website traffic. In terms of raw unique visitors to this website a month, this site hasn’t changed much in the last year. I have about the same amount of visitors, sometimes it spikes if an article I write is promoted on a large website, but it usually stabilizes to the same level.
But despite the lack of growth in traffic, the website has greatly improved. I’ve quadrupled the number of readers through RSS (1500 regular subscribers this time last year to an average of 6000, as recorded by Feedburner). In addition, the amount of comments per article has increased. And, although it is a more selfish measurement, I’ve also been able to increase the income on this blog so that I could avoid the summer job hunt and focus entirely on writing.
When I started, however, I believed that traffic was an incredibly important measurement. Most of my goals revolved around increasing this number. Now, I’ve realized that traffic is low-hanging fruit — it can give a broad picture of the size and audience of a website, but it isn’t the only way to improve.
Grades are also a low-hanging piece of fruit. They can indicate roughly how much you understand of your courses, but they don’t tell the full story. They don’t show whether you understand applications beyond the classroom and they can’t measure your creativity.
The measurement paradox can be summed up as:
- Measuring the right things is good.
- Finding the right things to measure is incredibly hard.
Fixing the Measurement Paradox
The alternative to measurement isn’t an intuitive sense of improvement, it’s blindness. When you don’t measure anything, you’ve cut off your ability to experiment, and learn from mistakes. When everything looks the same, improvement is just superstitions and guesswork, not skill.
I don’t think abandoning tools like weight, traffic or grades will solve the problem. But I think you need to look critically at how you measure. If you follow a number as a complete replacement for your intuitive sense of better and worse, you may end up working very hard to improve something that doesn’t matter.
Get More Rulers
I think the solution to the measuring paradox is, ironically, more measurement. More importantly, measuring more than just one number. If you only measure weight, traffic or grades, you’re simplifying something complex — health, value or learning — into one number. If you only have one ruler, then it’s easy to ignore anything that doesn’t fit on that scale.
Getting alternate rulers is a better way of looking at the whole picture. Instead of just measuring weight, the easiest and most popular indicator of health, keep records of things like:
- Maximum running distance
- Number of push-ups or crunches
Even if weight is a good measurement, having these supporting rulers makes sure you don’t fall into the trap of obsessing over something unimportant. Since I’ve started this website, I’ve changed my stance from focusing entirely on traffic, to also recording readers, revenue, comments, links or positive feedback as a backup measurement that I’m improving.
If you’re working on something, ask yourself whether you focus mostly on one number. Do you use GPA, income or weight as your only measure of success? Maybe you need to expand and get some other rulers to make sure you aren’t missing out on what really matters.