Measure Twice, Cut Once

I’ve come across a quotation from management guru Peter Drucker many times. The quote is often given as follows, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” It’s usually given as evidence of the importance of developing, collecting and maintaining good data. Sometimes the quote is given as “what gets measured gets managed.” Which turns the quote on its side a bit, as when Paul Barnett gives it as part of a longer quote “what gets measured gets managed – even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.” In this context, it’s used as a warning, to be careful about what you are measuring because what you are measuring will draw your attention and influence your actions.

There is no evidence that Drucker said either of those things.

A similar quote is often credited to W. Edward Deming who said, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Again reflecting the importance of measurement for effective management. The only problem is that what he actually said was “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth” – my emphasis. Either formulation of the quote, form either author, remind us to exercise caution when we are deciding what to measure.

These quotes, and their popularity, show the importance of and dangers in choosing what to measure and what to manage. On one hand, it is important to establish criteria for success. Criteria that are easily expressed in measurable attributes, like profit increases and cost savings in business or collection size and number of visitors in libraries, can capture our attention. They make it easy to communicate the story of the organization – before we had less, now we have more! But these criteria only tell part of the story. And the story they tell may be the wrong story. As the famous Einstein quotes says, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (BTW, he apparently never said that.)

As libraries look for ways to measure their progress and tell their stories, they need to beware of a pitfall that psychologists call surrogation. Wikipedia describes surrogation as “a psychological phenomenon in which the measure(s) of a construct of interest evolve to replace the construct itself.” ( Like,s ay using the size of your acquisitions budget to gauge the quality of your collection. They go on to give the example of “the tendency for managers to lose sight of the strategic construct(s) the [performance] measures are intended to represent, and subsequently act as though the measures are the constructs of interest.” It’s something to think about while you are focusing in our your ARL rankings or your IPEDS data.

The example on my mind these days as we are heading back to school is the propensity of universities to tout the quality of their incoming freshman. That’s great, you found great students and you provided an opportunity for them to succeed. But a great school would take any student and launch them on a stellar career and life. I suppose it depends on your “strategic construct.” If you want to educate students, then the quality of your incoming class is meaningless. If you have other goals, like moving up in the college rankings or cultivating donors, then maybe that is a good measure.

So, as Drucker might have wanted to say, what gets measured, gets managed. So be careful what you measure.


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