Avoid This Danger When Choosing Metrics


I’m all about making data clear and easy-to-digest. But there is a danger in it. The clarity may cause you accept what the data seems to tell you. You may not linger. You may not reflect.

Writer Margaret J. Wheatley warns us that “without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”

Economist Charles Goodhart recognized this danger in the metrics we create to measure our progress. At first, a certain metric may seem like a good indicator of progress. If we want kids in an after-school track program to increase their endurance, we might measure how far they run at the beginning of the program and then again at the end.  Makes sense, right? We might then try to motivate students by offering them free running shorts if they increase their miles by a certain amount. But, that’s when students might start gaming the system. They can increase their miles not only by training hard and running farther over time but also by running very short distances at the start. This is the kind of unintended consequence that Goodhart warned us about. His law states: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

The solution? First, reflection. Consider the potential unintended consequences of each of your metrics, particularly those tied to incentives. Second, use multiple metrics to provide a more balanced understanding of progress.  In our running example, in addition to the change in miles participants run, you might also measure resting heart rates at the beginning and end of the program, knowing that a lower resting heart rate generally indicates a higher level of cardiovascular fitness.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.