Measuring the wrong things

It’s often been said we measure what’s easy rather than what is important. It goes, I suggest, beyond that – even when we measure what’s important, we oversimplify it.

In the early 20th century, Lewis Richardson was trying to develop a “science of war” – to find out and eliminate the causes of war. He researched the length of national borders as a possible contributory factor and noticed that there were significant discrepancies depending on the source. In what became the inspiration for Benoit Mandelbrot’s work on fractal geometry. As the heart of it is the simple, and in retrospect, the obvious observation that the length of something irregular varies depending on the resolution with which we measure it. If you measure the coastline of the UK with a 200km “measuring stick,” it would come out at approx 2400km. If you used a 50km stick, it would be 1000km more. The crinklier what we measure is, the greater the effect.

I suggest the same applies to organisations and the people in them. They are not smooth edges – and fewer things are crinklier than people. We measure them with very long measuring sticks called performance, or Myers Briggs, or qualifications without seeing what’s hidden – the humour, the ideas, imagination or the circumstances of their personal life. It is convenient and efficient to use a big measure, as it allows comparison even although no two of us are the same.

The resolution with which we measure people and our organsiational challenges hides more than it reveals. It’s more than a shame because right now, we need to see the crinkles more than ever.
We face novel challenges, and the answers are not in standard solutions or case studies. Instead, they are enfolded in our crinkles.

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