Applying Business Best Practices to Relationships

Metrics money managementI ran across a blog the other day singing the importance of relationships in business. Fair enough.

As I recall, it started by saying:

“Let’s start with some undeniable facts. What gets measured gets managed.” ‘Uh oh,’ I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to write about this one.’

All right, let’s trot out the whole set of logical fallacies.

1. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it
2. If you can measure it, you can manage it
3. If you can’t manage it, it’s because you’re not measuring it
4. If you can manage it, it’s because you are measuring it.

Not one of those is true.

First, there is management by fear and intimidation; by shared values; by guilt-tripping; by walking around; by praise; and so on. None of which require measurement.

Second, the act of measuring per se does nothing to cause “management” to happen.

Of course, just because something is illogical doesn’t mean people don’t assign meaning to it. But why do so many people insist so strongly on connecting management and measurement?

I can suggest two reasons.

Go back to “what gets measured, gets managed.” What that really means is, “I’m the kind of person who, when someone measures me, falls into line and behaves according to the desired metrics.”

This view is the choice of the one being measured; it’s not a trait of the measurer, nor an outcome of the act of measuring. It’s a rather passive choice by the measuree: it doesn’t require much thinking, and doesn’t invite challenge.

Which is exactly what most managers intend measurement to do: to communicate desires from boss to employee, in narrow, quantitative, often financial, terms.

But most of all, “what gets measured gets managed” reflects a belief that measurement is good, and that more measurement is better. Break it down to the elemental levels, let’s really manage this puppy.

Well, let’s test-drive that idea. Go ask your wife how you’re doing as a spouse (or reverse, etc.). On a scale of 1-10, please.

Now, that might get you into a pretty good conversation. It might even be so good that your actual performance as a spouse improves as a result.

Suppose further that you work in a company that believes “what gets measured gets managed,” and decide to apply this “obvious fact” to your home life as well. So you ask the wife the same question next month. Scale of 1-10 again, please.

Your spouse says, “didn’t we just have this conversation a few weeks ago?”

“Why, yes,” you say, “and it was really useful, and I want to be an even better spouse, so I figured I’d starting taking regular metrics readings so I can establish a benchmark performance level and track my improvement. I learned that technique at work. Do you think monthly reports on my spousal performance will be enough? Maybe I should ask you for weekly ratings?  And let’s be s ure to talk about rewards for achieving and exceeding my metrics.”

Now, if your spouse has any relationship skills, and any self-image to speak of, you’re gonna be sleeping on the sofa for a while.

And while explaining these new arrangements to you, you may hear something like, “and by the way, thanks for ruining that great conversation we had a few weeks ago, because now I see you never meant it, you were just in it for your own ego-gratification, and I feel like an idiot because I actually thought you might have cared, but now I see not only are you a jerk, but I deluded myself, and I now don’t even trust my own assessment skills, I was so far off in even thinking we had a good thing going, now I feel even worse, etc.”

This is the emotional equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You have just proven that the act of measurement can alter the thing being measured. (And by the way, who cares that you meant well, anyway?)

I have a friend who works at GE designing sophisticated fluid control measurement tools used in the oil industry. Crude oil doesn’t much care how often or how precisely you measure it. Unfortunately, spouses do.  As do people in general.

Which is why the unthinking, inane concatenations of measurement and management so often fail when applied to people.

Best practices aren’t universal. The management of capital and hydrocarbon resources doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the management of human “resources,” aka people.

6 replies
  1. Beth Robinson
    Beth Robinson says:

     I agree with you that this phrase and concept can be taken too far when it comes to people, but think the principle behind it is valid, just perhaps more in the wolf that you feed is the wolf that wins sort of way.

    What you pay attention to and evaluate your performance in – whether or not you involve anyone else – is where you will improve.

    So you have your conversation with your spouse and you decide that for this next few months you’re going to pay attention to those pauses that mean she has something else to say and you run over in conversation when your mind is elsewhere or that you’ll replace the soap when it gets so small even though you’d use it until it got much smaller and the other little things that seem to matter to him.

    Can you honestly say that the amount of energy and effort you’d put into showing your spouse you care is the same when you’re paying attention as when you’re paying attention primarily to, oh, how work is going? I know I can’t.

    If I take a little time to focus and consider how I’m doing then I make improvement and establish or strengthen good habits. Then I can divert my attention to something else for a while and manage that, because I’m measuring it, after a fashion.

    No, the management of capital and hydrocarbons doesn’t really apply to people. Yet some of the principle can, as long as it is not that "unthinking, inane" application that you justifiably condemn.

  2. Steve McCreedy
    Steve McCreedy says:

    I always love reading your posts Charlie and this one got my attention (as all of them do, but this one in particular).  It appears to me you made a flawed assumption.  I do not believe that if "something gets measured" it equates with punitive action if the person or sales team doesn’t comply.  In your marriage example you equate the husband as the manager of the relationship to drive home your point.  I do not believe that managing is equated with being a "boss" who mandates compliance or they will find someone who can comply ("or I’ll find a wife who can").

    I believe the term "if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it" should be stated "if you can’t measure it you can’t coach it."  A top manager uses metrics to coach their team to a higher level.  Look at the NFL, the quarterback coach measures the quarterback rating and determines (by the metrics) what he should be working on with his quarterback to improve his performance.  He has two (or three) quarterbacks on his team and will coach each quarterback (not just the starter) on their individual weaknesses to make them and the team better. Yes, each quarterback has a choice of whether they want to "fall in line" with the desire metrics, but isn’t that the same with an organization?

    The assumption I make in requiring metrics begins with providing good communication (and getting buy in) on the goals of the organization (i.e. a 10% sales increase) and then establishing agreed upon activities that will get us to that goal (i.e. I need to make "x" more presentations per month to close "x" more new business.)  Then if I fall behind I’m looking to my manager to coach me to help me get back on track.  If the only metrics I have available to me is if I made quota then the manager doesn’t have any information as to why I didn’t make quota (was I on vacation?  was I spending too much time in the office?  was I doing a poor job in my face to face meetings?)

    When I look back at my career the worst manager I ever worked for had the attitude "make your numbers or I’ll find someone who will" and then went to his "ivory tower" and waited for the numbers to change.  The  best managers I had (and Bill Brooks was the best) challenged me to stretch myself and used metrics (self generated leads, telephone presentations, referrals generated, etc.) as a scoreboard to coach me to a higher level. 


  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Interesting piece, Charlie.


    Some thoughts:


    When I coach couples – new couples, committed couples, married couples – part of their coaching process requires them to meet every week, and “check in.” (Know that “checking in” is a very structured process and requires a fair amount of coaching preparation – e.g., ground rules such as when one’s partner is speaking there is no interrupting, defending yourself, pushing back, explaining, hijacking the speaker, etc. The listener mirrors back to the speaker every few sentences or so to be sure the listener “gets it” completely.)


    The check in always begins with: “What was it like being married to me (or being my partner…) this week?


    When one partner speaks, there is no attacking, criticizing or judging the other (a terribly painful and frustrating experience for those who only know how to attack, criticize and judge…). What the speaker does do, however, is reflect how they felt being in relationship, how they felt they (the speaker) supported or limited the relationship through their thoughts, words and actions, how they felt when their partner did (or didn’t) do this or said (or didn’t say) that, etc. and why they felt the way they did, owning their feelings and reactivity – not judging or blaming their partner –ever!.


    (IMHO, the “conversation” you describe is not that of an emotionally and spiritually mature couple. It’s of  two children in adult bodies wearing adult clothes whose only way of “conversing” is through attack, demeaning, sarcasm and judgment, something more akin to two children in a playground altercation.)


    The goal of the “check in”, which many couples choose to do more consistently than once a week, is to keep their finger on the pulse of (measure the health of?…) the relationship. These partners begin to become more aware of, and conscious of, what a healthy relationship looks like and feels like, and what one can (not) “do”, or how one can (not) “be” (result of the measurement) to consistently move the relationship to higher levels of maturity and healthy well-being. It’s all about “me” (ownership and self-responsibility) in this conversation, not “you”.


    As folks hear their partners speak, over time, one begins to see how one’s own “stuff” interferes in how they are and how they react and respond to their partner. It’s never about changing the other (again, a huge “problem” for many in relationship who think that, “if only s/he changes, all will be rosy and fun”…BTW, that never happens), but deciding if I want to take a look at my own self and see if perhaps I can reevaluate “who I am” and “how I am” to improve how “we” are. It’s not about selling out, giving up my identity….it’s about honestly, sincerely and self-responsibly looking at my own beliefs, paradigms, expectations, assumptions, emotional reactivity, etc. to see if these are really, really, supportive of the relationship or are ego-driven needs and emotions I have that really don’t help the relationship….(folks who live from the “I’d rather be right than happy” mantra also have trouble here.)


    So, here, at the outset folks might use a 1-10 scale….knowing full well what a 1 looks like in thought, word, deed and action, and a 2, and a 3, etc. But after a while the “numbers” fall away and all that is left is the conversation, and the “knowing” of both what has to happen and not happen for their relationship to move forward, or continue in a mutually-loving an supportive way.


    At work, when working with an executive, who has chosen up to five direct reports with whom to have this conversation at least once a month (for some, once a week), the question is, “What was it like working for/with me this past (week, month)? Same ground rules apply.


    No need for a “360”. Just the courage and strength to have this open and honest conversation which, BTW, indirectly “measures” listening skills, delegating skills, asking me for input, emotional responses and reactivity, relationship skills (sarcasm, put-down humor, bullying, acknowledging, recognizing, supporting etc). The exec/direct report just shuts up and listens…no interruption (but mirroring), push back, etc.


    When done right, it’s a powerful learning experience, initially not always very comfortable for the faint of heart or for those not comfortable in their own skins…but can certainly help one become comfortable and secure within their own skins if they have the courage to experience and learn from the process.


    I guess there’s measuring and measuring.

  4. Sam Bloomfield
    Sam Bloomfield says:

    I certainly agree with your premise. It is like people equating CRM to some piece of software [‘if we only have/use this software/system we will effortlessly [or worse "seamlessly"] create valuable/lasting relationships’]. Nevertheless, I am quite certain you do not mean to imply either, that measurement, when used as part of many other approaches, doesn’t have the potential to be valuable. Only that it is not, in itself, in isolation, sufficent.


  5. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    As I read these comments, it occurs to me that there are two things going on.

    For the most part, I’m talking about the way things are.  And, for the most part, commenters–Steve, Sam, Peter–are talking about the way things could be, or should be, or ought to be, or are when they are done properly.

    In that sense, we probably all agree.  All the examples you gave–Bill Brooks’ coaching, the work Peter does with couples–use metrics quite properly.  They are big-picture indicators, or loose indications of causal direction, or conversation starters, or ways of representing a common goal.

    I think most people would agree with that, and you articulated it better than I could (I find Peter’s comments here particularly insightful and deep).

    At the same time, let me try to sharpen my focus, and state that "increasingly, we are finding significant numbers of measurement abusers.  And if that’s true, it’s a cause for concern."

    I don’t have stats on this, just anecdotes.  But here are a few:

    -A telecom company whose metrics have gotten so twisted that their CSRs end up begging for good numbers from the company’s customers.  Begging from your customers is not a positive strategic move.

    -Staff at the venerated Ritz-Carlton who went over the metrics line and begin ceaselessly turning "my pleasure" into the equivalent of "you want fries with that?"

    -the wholesale substitution of high quality, personalized, white-space focus groups and interviews by purely quantified, scalar, multiple-choice, often online, "satisfaction" surveys which insist on precluding any customer input that doesn’t fit into company-defined multiple choice categories.

    -training organizations who have ceded strategic interpretation of feedback to the quantitative "smile sheets." 

    -Universities who have changed "students" into "customers," and since "the customer is always right," we now have course design and delivery judged solely by the students.  Not the same as inmates running the asylum, but directionally….

    -a predilection for describing complex human interactions solely in terms of observable behaviors–largely so that they can be measured. 

    -a technology salesperson for a major hardware company once told me, "if I have to choose between selling a 3-year service contract at $500K per year and a 25% margin, and a one-time sale of hardware product at $400K at 40% margin–I’ll sell the hardware deal every time.   We want margins.  That’s what the numbers tell me to do, and I do it."

    -It seems to me that Fred Reichheld’s single number metric (do your customers enthusiastically recommend you) is a poster child for a great idea that has turned into a numbers chase; through no fault of his own, by the way.

    This is not right–but it is real, and I think it is increasing in frequency.  In the real world out there, numbers are too often mistaken for the things they were invented to measure in the first place. It’s as old as Plato, who described people confusing pale representations of things for the thingness itself.

    Metaphysics aside, is this the same problem with the old Soviet Central Planning system?  An economy, even a business, is just too complicated for a central bureau to successfully reduce everything to quantitative and behavioral imperatives.  Centralized planning is inferior to free markets in the same way that management by behaviors and numbers is inferior to intelligent frontline interpreters of general guidelines.

    As the world gets diffused, flattened, linked, et al, what we need more of is precisely what Sam, Peter and Steve are arguing for.  The question is, are they winning?  I fear not, even though they should be.  And the followup question is, How can we help them win, i.e. how can we get people to use measures as they should be used, rather than worship the false idols of metrics themselves?


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