- Paperback: 248 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (15 March 2019)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691191913
- ISBN-13: 978-0691191911
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.9 x 20.3 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 259 g
- Average Customer Review: 1 customer review
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 78,593 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Tyranny of Metrics Paperback – 15 Mar 2019
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From the Back Cover
"In this clear and compelling book, Jerry Muller shows how our attempts to improve organizational outcomes through quantitative measures have metastasized into a culture of gaming and manipulation. Through carefully researched case studies on education, healthcare, and compensation, The Tyranny of Metrics makes a convincing case that we need to restore judgment and ethical considerations at a time when shallow quantification threatens the integrity of our most important institutions."--Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business School
"Have you ever wondered why universities make the mistake of hiring presidents with little or no experience in higher education, or why, nine times out of ten, these foreign imports fail? Then read Jerry Muller's new book and you will understand such folly as one more instance of an unhappy, massive trend--abandoning the situated judgment of experienced professionals in favor of the supposedly objective judgment promised (but not delivered) by the magic bullet of metrics: standardized measures and huge data banks touted as generating insight and wisdom all by themselves. Muller dismantles this myth in a brisk and no-nonsense prose that has this reader crying 'yes, yes' at every sentence."--Stanley Fish, author of Winning Arguments and Think Again
"Quantification, once only a tool, has become a cult. I can think of no better deprogrammer than Jerry Muller, whose renowned skills in dissecting political and social doctrines are evident here. The Tyranny of Metrics should be essential reading for managers and the managed alike."--Edward Tenner, author of The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do and Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences
"In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller has brought to life the many ways in which numerical evaluations result in deleterious performance: in our schools, our universities, our hospitals, our military, and our businesses. This book addresses a major problem."--George A. Akerlof, Nobel Prize-winning economist
"The Tyranny of Metrics is an important and accessible book about a growing problem. It comes as close as anything I've read to showing us how to break out of the dysfunctional cycle of measuring, finding out that measuring doesn't get us where we want to go, but then measuring some more."--David Chinitz, School of Public Health, Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School
"Broad in scope and ambition, persuasively argued, and engagingly written, The Tyranny of Metrics is a very compelling book."--Mark Schlesinger, Yale University
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Some years ago the chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company remarked to me that nobody, not even Jack Welch, the then-idolized leader of General Electric, could possibly turn in solid revenue and profit increases steadily, quarter-after-quarter, year-after-year, through ups and downs in the market. It was clear to him that somebody was cooking the books at GE. I had been in business long enough then to understand how easy it is to shift sales and revenue from one quarter or year to the next and how other steps could be taken to fudge the numbers. (I was also aware of Welch's reputation as "Neutron Jack" for his ruthless practice of "downsizing" to increase profits, a practice that can also be timed to give the appearance of steadily increasing profits.) It had been clear to me for many years that numbers can lie.
In his new book, Muller tackles our society's obsession with metrics and accountability. However, "[t]his book is not about the evils of measuring," he writes. "It is about the unintended consequences of trying to substitute standardized measures of performance for personal judgment based on experience. The problem is not measurement, but excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement—not metrics but metric fixation." In just 200 pages, Muller assesses the use and misuse of metrics through case studies drawn from a wide range of fields: colleges and universities, K-12 education, medicine, policing, the military, business and finance, and philanthropy and foreign aid. The research he cites, and the examples he chooses, are compelling.
I've had my own intimate experience with the misuse of metrics in both philanthropy and foreign aid. More than thirty years ago, when I was running a consulting agency that raised money for nonprofit organizations, I wrote and spoke to whoever would listen about the absurdity of measuring nonprofit performance on the basis of its fundraising costs. Years later, when I became involved in consulting with NGOs in developing countries, I saw for myself the folly of the metrics obsession that had seized hold of the international development community after Bill Gates began proselytizing on the subject. That fixation on the numbers forced far too many charities and government agencies to funnel money toward easily measured but trivial or even irrelevant programs while ignoring others that might actually have some positive impact in the field.
Muller sums up the problem nicely. "There are things that can be measured. There are things that are worth measuring. But what can be measured is not always what is worth measuring; what gets measured may have no relationship to what we really want to know. The costs of measuring may be greater than the benefits. The things that get measured may draw effort away from the things we really care about. And measurement may provide us with distorted knowledge—knowledge that seems solid but is actually deceptive." Amen.
Some of the examples Muller cites are familiar to the public at large. "Teaching to the test," for example. The tendency of some surgeons to decline to operate in difficult cases because failure would lower their success ratios. And the tendency of police under pressure from politicians to make the numbers look better by classifying felonies as misdemeanors or altogether refusing to write up crimes. These are just a few of the many sad ways that our obsession with accountability distorts our understanding of the world around us.
Among the many unintended consequences of the misuse of metrics that Muller cites are the following:
** Inducing people whose performance is measured to divert their efforts to what gets measured;
** Promoting short-termism (as in Wall Street's obsessive preoccupation with quarterly earnings reports at the expense of companies' long-term health);
** Discouraging innovation and risk-taking;
** Sidetracking nonprofit staff members (or corporate employees, for that matter) from focusing on the mission that motivates them; and
** Forcing employees to spend time logging data instead of doing their jobs (a requirement that was a major factor in convincing my brother to close his psychiatric practice many years ago).
Muller concludes The Tyranny of Metrics with a useful checklist of ten questions that any manager should ask when considering the application of metrics at work.
Jerry Muller has written a very useful book, one that should give pause to anyone who would mindlessly use, or construct, a metric of a performance. There is a lot worth noticing in this book, but I was especially impressed by his discussions of how people can (and will) "game" a metric when it is used to measure performance and determine compensation. This more or less falls out of his distinctions between "intrinsic" and "extrinsic" motivation, and "internal" and "external" users of metrics. In the context of these distinctions, we learn that metrics are especially problematic when used for extrinsic (compensation) purposes by external users, but metrics can be quite valuable when used for intrinsic purposes by an internal user, i.e., for professional development.
This is one of those books that would benefit from a second read to more fully explore its implicit analytical structure. Happily, it is short enough, and engaging enough, to make this an prospect attractive.
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