Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.” — Albert Einstein

(Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

Microsoft’s next move

A fascinating glimpse from Ben Thompson into how a change in management at Microsoft led to a change in priorities, organisation and culture.

The end of Windows
That wasn’t the only news that week: Microsoft also renamed its cloud service from Windows Azure to Microsoft Azure. The name change was an obvious one — by then customers could already run a whole host of non-Windows related software, including Linux — but the symbolism tied in perfectly with the Office on iPad announcement: Windows wouldn’t be forced onto Microsoft’s future.


That summer Nadella undertook his first reorganization, separating the company into three divisions: Cloud and Enterprise, Applications and Services, and Windows and Devices. … I believe this reorganization was the turning point: not only were the two teams Nadella announced last week basically formed at this time, but more importantly, Windows was left to fend for itself.

Whilst it seems an obvious move — and the article notes the company’s rising stock price since the new CEO took over — it ends on a cautionary note.

This, then, is Nadella’s next challenge: to understand that Windows is not and will not drive future growth is one thing; identifying future drivers of said growth is another. Even in its division Windows remains the best thing Microsoft has going — it had such a powerful hold on Microsoft’s culture precisely because it was so successful.

Kaizen, change on the cheap?

Key features of Kaizen include:

  • Improvements are based on many small changes rather than the radical changes that might arise from Research and Development
  • As the ideas come from the workers themselves, they are less likely to be radically different, and therefore easier to implement
  • Small improvements are less likely to require major capital investment than major process changes
  • The ideas come from the talents of the existing workforce, as opposed to using research, consultants or equipment – any of which could be very expensive
  • All employees should continually be seeking ways to improve their own performance
  • It helps encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce team working, thereby improving worker motivation.

I was trying to remember the name of this technique when talking about change management with a colleague earlier. I like the idea of everyone being on the look-out, in an energetic, proactive way, for ways of improving how they do things — and I guess the first step in that might be to encourage people to moan about their jobs, to identify the parts of the process that feel unwieldy, unnecessary, over-complex — but I’m wondering if it’s not just change on the cheap, as those bulletpoints above from Wikipedia might imply.

How to mess up hiring

A great perspective on some of the pitfalls of recruitment from Welsey Verhoeve.

I think of the costs associated with bad hires (time, energy, money) as a tuition fee for the lessons I’ve learned. And boy, lets just say I now have a PhD in hiring.

Lessons learned include hiring based on friend potential – that’s the one I fall foul of, and I’m due to start this process again soon as I’m looking to hire another member of our team. Wish me luck.

I liked his post about working in coffee shops instead of your office. The change of scene and fewer distractions certainly work for me.

(Via Swiss Miss)