When Metrics Do Harm

We are obsessed with data. One aspect of this obsession is our fixation on metrics. Quantitative measures—metrics—can be quite useful for monitoring and managing performance, but only when they are skillfully used in the right circumstances for the right purposes. In his wonderful new book, The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller convincingly argues that the balance has shifted toward counterproductive and often harmful misuses of metrics.

As an historian, Muller brought a high degree of scholarship to his examination of metrics. I’ll let the description that appears on the inside flap of the book’s slip cover give you sense of its contents.

Today, organizations of all kinds are fueled by the belief that the path to success is quantifying human performance, publicizing the results, and dividing up the rewards based on the numbers. But in our zeal to instill the evaluation process with scientific rigor, we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. The result is a tyranny of metrics that threatens the quality of our lives and most important institutions. In this timely and powerful book, Jerry Muller uncovers the damage our obsession with metrics is causing—and shows how we can begin to fix the problem.

Filled with examples from education, medicine, business and finance, government, the police and military, and philanthropy and foreign aid, this brief and accessible book explains why the seemingly irresistible pressure to quantify performance distorts and distracts, whether by encouraging “gaming the stats” or “teaching to the test.” That’s because what can and does get measured is not always worth measuring, may not be what we really want to know, and may draw effort away from the things we care about. Along the way, we learn why paying for measured performance doesn’t work, why surgical scorecards may increase deaths, and much more. But metrics can be good when used as a complement to—rather than a replacement for—judgment based on personal experience, and Muller also gives examples of when metrics have been beneficial

Complete with a checklist of when and how to use metrics, The Tyranny of Metrics is an essential corrective to a rarely questioned trend that increasingly affects us all.

I appreciate it when thoughtful people courageously challenge popular opinion by questioning what we blindly assume is good. It is the rare individual who struggles to row against the current. It is in this direction that we must set our course, however, when the wellspring of truth is located upstream.

Many skilled professionals who work with metrics already recognize ways in which metrics do harm when they are ill-defined, inappropriately chosen, improperly measured, or misapplied. If you’re one of these professionals, this book will help you make your concerns heard above the din that keeps your organization distracted and confused. This is a welcome voice of sanity in a world that worships data but seldom uses it meaningfully and skillfully.

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