We live in a culture that is crazy about numbers. We seek standardization, we revere precision, and we strive 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 gauge how we are doing on 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? What about the 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, let us 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?

Presumably, 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 wonder 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 in 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. Rather 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, learning, teamwork, quality, innovation–is a choice that a person makes. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, people choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn, and to share their learning. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. They are either contributed or withheld by individuals, as they choose whether and how they will work with us.

But to look at prevailing organizational practice, most managers consistently seem to choose measurement as the route to these capabilities. They agonize to find the right reward that can be tied to the right measure. How long have we searched for the rewards that will lead to better teamwork or to more innovation? And haven’t we learned yet that measures or rewards work only as a short-term incentive, if they work at all? Ironically, the longer we try to encourage 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 their way on the path to quality because they have burdened themselves with unending measures to achieve their goals. How many employees have become experts at playing “the numbers game” to satisfy bosses rather than experts at doing their jobs? The path of measurement can lead us dangerously far from the organizational qualities and behaviors that we require.

But measurement is critical. Measurement can provide something that is essential to sustenance and growth: feedback. All living things thrive on feedback. We have to know what is going on around us, how our actions affect 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:

  • Feedback is self-generated. Individuals or systems notice only whatever they determine is important them. They ignore everything else.
  • Feedback depends on context. Critical information is being generated right now. Failing to notice the “now,” or getting stuck in past assumptions, is very dangerous.
  • Feedback changes. What individuals or systems choose 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.
  • New and surprising information can get in. The boundaries are permeable.
  • Feedback is life-sustaining. It provides essential information about how to sustain ourselves, but it also indicates when adaptation and growth are necessary.
  • Feedback supports movement toward fitness. Through the constant exchange of feedback, individuals and their environments can co-evolve toward 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 shown in the lists below.

If we understand the critical role played by feedback in living systems, and contemplate these distinctions, we could develop measurement processes that support the behaviors and capacities we require, those that enhance the vitality and adaptability of the organization. To create measures that more resemble feedback, we suggest the following questions. We use them as design criteria for any measure or measurement process:

Who gets to create the measures? Measures are meaningful and important only when generated by the people doing the work. Any group can benefit from others’ experience and from expert advice, but the final measures must be the creation of the people intimately involved with the outcome. People only support what they create, and those closest to the work know a great deal about what is significant to measure.

How will we measure our measures? How can we ensure that measures are useful and current? How will we know when they are obsolete? How will we keep abreast of changes in context that warrant new measures? Who will look for the unintended consequences that accompany any process and feed that information back to us?

Are we designing measures that are permeable rather than rigid? Are the measures open enough? Do they invite in newness and surprise? Do they encourage people to look in new places or to see with new eyes?

Will these measures create information that increases our capacity to develop, to grow into the purpose of this organization?