In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Z. Muller argues that metrics sometimes fail because they cannot capture the complexities of the real world. Yet, by promising numerical precision, metrics can mislead. The calculative, Muller notes, is the enemy of the imaginative.
He writes: “Entrepreneurship, as we have noted, depends on taking what the economist Frank Knight termed ‘unmeasurable risk,’ for the potential benefits of an innovation are not subject to precise calculation. Or in the formulation of Alfie Kohn, a long-time critic of pay-for-performance, metrics ‘inhibits risk-taking, an inevitable concomitant of exploration and creativity. We are less likely to take chances, to play with possibilities, and to follow hunches, which may, after all, not pay off.’
“A hallmark of practical, local knowledge, as James Scott has noted, is that ‘it is as economical and accurate as it needs to be, no more and no less, for addressing the problem at hand.’ By contrast, the degree of numerical precision promised by metrics may be far greater than is required by actual practitioners, and attaining that precision requires an expenditure of time and effort that may not be worthwhile. The quest for precision may therefore be wasteful, and resented for that reason by those required to sacrifice their time and ingenuity.
“‘To demand or preach mechanical precision, even in principle, in a field incapable of it is to be blind and to mislead others,’ as the British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin noted in an essay on political judgement. Indeed what Berlin says of political judgement applies more broadly: judgement is a sort of skill at grasping the unique particularities of a situation, and it entails a talent for synthesis rather than analysis, ‘a capacity for taking in the total pattern of a human situation, of the way in which things hang together.’ A feel for the whole and a sense for the unique are precisely what numerical metrics cannot supply.”
Read on to get some more perspective on this topic from another thinker we hugely admire.
Have a good day!
Business and science
Is there a scientific way to conduct business? Does parsing through data provide clues on what to do next? Ought gut-feel be eliminated from the decision making process? Contemporary wisdom from C-Suites across the world has it that the answer to these questions is an unambiguous Yes.
But Roger Martin, the former dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and author of When More Is Not Better, argues that we ought to rethink contemporary wisdom and reexamine the obsession with data and the scientific method. “Aristotle believed that this realm of possibilities was driven not by scientific analysis but by human invention and persuasion.
“This is particularly true when it comes to decisions about business strategy and innovation. You can’t chart a course for the future or bring about change merely by analysing history. Customer behaviour will never be transformed by a product whose design is based on an analysis of past behaviour. Yet transforming customer habits and experiences is what great business innovations do.
“Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and other computing pioneers created a brand-new device, the personal computer, that revolutionised how people interacted and did business. The railroad, the motor car, and the telephone all introduced enormous behavioural and social shifts that prior data could not have predicted. To be sure, innovators often incorporate scientific discoveries in their creations, but their real genius is in their ability to imagine products or processes that never existed before.
“The world we live in is not just the inevitable result of the laws of science at work; to act as if that’s the case would deny the potential for genuine innovation. A purely scientific approach to business decision-making has serious limitations, and managers need to understand those limits.”
Martin goes on to make the case that the need for imagination is more urgent now. This is a compelling read and we’d urge you to read and think it over.
Scientific American has an interesting interview with Amanda Baughan who, as part of a research team, created a mobile app called Chirp to monitor the Twitter usage of participants. Some of the lessons apply to all of us who are worried about Twitter taking up too much mindspace without making our lives better—or indeed, making it worse.
Baughan said: “The most successful were custom lists and reading history labels. In custom lists, we forced users to categorise the content they followed, such as ‘sports’ or ‘news’ or ‘friends.’ Then, instead of interacting with Twitter’s main feed, they engaged only with content on these lists. This approach was coupled with a reading history intervention in which people received a message when they were caught up on the newest tweets. Rather than continuing to scroll, they were alerted to what they had already seen, and so they focused on just the newest content.”
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Team Founding Fuel