Editor’s Note: Margaret Wheatley is a noted organizationalconsultant and speaker who can offer many lessons to the educational world from her viewpoint in the business world. Don’t think that the business world has become the epitome of innovation. Far from it – one of the reasons is because, in Wheatley’s words,
what is significant to measure.”
Wheatley asks, “How many employees have become experts at playing ‘the numbers game’ to satisfy bosses rather than becoming experts at their jobs?”
Are our students also becoming good at “playing the game of school”, such as studying for the short-term or the next test, rather than learning for deeper understanding and analysis, necessary for higher level cognitive work such as problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking?
And guess what, when those students become employees, managers included, they may be good at showing what the boss wants to see and hear, rather than pursuing the path of real growth and excellence. Ouch. – C.J. Westerberg
by Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers
new from those nations to which the study of that
which can be weighed and measured is a consuming love.”
– W.H. Auden
We live in a culture that is crazy about numbers. We seek standardization, we revere precision, and we aspire for control. The very ancient and dominant belief of Western culture is that numbers are what is real. If you can number it, you make it real. Once made real, it’s yours to manage and control. We increasingly depend on numbers to know how we are doing for virtually everything. We ascertain our health with numbers. How many calories or grams should I eat? What’s my cholesterol reading? We assess one another with numbers. What’s your I.Q.? What’s your GPA? Your Emotional Intelligence? And of course we judge organizational viability only with numbers. What’s the customer satisfaction rating? Inventory turns? ROI? P/E ratio?
It is numbers and only numbers that define and make visible what is real. This is the “hard stuff,” the real world of management- graphs, charts, indices, ratios. Everyone knows that “you can only manage what you can measure.” The work of modern managers is to interpret and manipulate these numeric views of reality. The desire to be good managers has compelled many people to become earnest students of measurement. But are measures and numbers the right pursuit? Do the right measures make for better managers? Do they make for stellar organizations?
As we look into the future of measurement, we want to pause for a moment and question this number mania. We’d like you to consider this question. What are the problems in organizations for which we assume measures are the solution?
Assumedly, most managers want reliable, high quality work. They want commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, and quality. They want people to pay attention to those things that contribute to performance.
If you agree that these are the general attributes and behaviors you’re seeking, we’d like to ask whether, in your experience, you have been able to find measures that sustain these strong and important behaviors over time. Or if you haven’t succeeded at finding them yet, are you still hopeful that you will find the right measures? Do you still believe in the power of measures to elicit these performance qualities?
We believe that these behaviors are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope. Each of these qualities and behaviors-commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality–is a choice that people make. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn and share their learnings. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. Either they are contributed or withheld by individuals as they choose whether and how they will work with us.
any measure or reward only works
as an incentive in the short term,
if at all?“
But to look at prevailing organizational practice, most managers seem consistently to choose measurement as the route to these capacities. They agonize to find the right reward that can be tied to the right measure. How long has been the search for the rewards that will lead to better teamwork or to more innovation? And haven’t we yet learned that any measure or reward only works as an incentive in the short term, if at all? Ironically, the longer we try to garner these behaviors through measurement and reward, the more damage we do to the quality of our relationships, and the more we trivialize the meaning of work. Far too many organizations have lost the path to quality because they have burdened themselves with unending measures. How many employees have become experts at playing “the numbers game” to satisfy bosses rather than becoming experts at their jobs? The path of measurement can lead us dangerously far from the organizational qualities and behaviors that we require.
But measurement is critical. It can provide something that is essential to sustenance and growth: feedback. All life thrives on feedback and dies without it. We have to know what is going on around us, how our actions impact others, how the environment is changing, how we’re changing. If we don’t have access to this kind of information, we can’t adapt or grow. Without feedback, we shrivel into routines and develop hard shells that keep newness out. We don’t survive for long.
In any living system, feedback differs from measurement in several significant ways:
1. Feedback is self-generated. An individual or system notices whatever they determine is important for them. They ignore everything else.
2. Feedback depends on context. The critical information is being generated right now. Failing to notice the “now,” or staying stuck in past assumptions, is very dangerous.
3. Feedback changes. What an individual or system chooses to notice will change depending on the past, the present, and the future. Looking for information only within rigid categories leads to blindness, which is also dangerous.
4. New and surprising information can get in. The boundaries are permeable.
5. Feedback is life-sustaining. It provides essential information about how to maintain one’s existence. It also indicates when adaptation and growth are necessary.
6. Feedback supports movement toward fitness. Through the constant exchange of feedback, the individual and its environment co-evolve towards mutual sustainability.
As we reflect on the capacities that feedback can provide, it seems we are seeking many similar attributes in our organizations. But we haven’t replicated the same processes, and therefore we can’t achieve the same outcomes. There are some critical distinctions between feedback and measurement, as evident in the following contrasts.