Does Measurement Get Things Done? Really?

Two of the most-repeated aphorisms pertaining to performance management have long been “What Gets Measured Gets Managed,” or, optionally, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” We’ve always liked these ideas, even though some smart people have pointed out flaws in these general principals. (And by the way, they are often attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, who never said either one.)

But as years have passed, we’ve become increasingly aware of another iteration of these phrases: “What gets measured, gets done.”

This isn’t a particularly new notion. It’s been around for a while, but increasingly we see it replacing the old misattributed quote -- most recently as part of a slideshow presented by an expert in performance management in a symposium just a few days ago.

We don’t want to pick fights with the people who have adopted this phrase, because there’s always some truth in anything.

But we’d prefer to go back to the good old days of our work in this field and drop “What gets measured gets done,” in favor of “What gets measured gets managed”. We’d even take it a step further, if wordier, and say “If you want to get something done, it’s a good idea to measure it.”

That’s certainly a weak-kneed cousin to the more emphatic phrase about which we’re complaining. But we’re convinced that the effort to encourage people to believe in the power of performance management is only damaged by overselling the case.

If you take “What Gets Measured Gets Done,” literally, that would mean that the mere act of measurement leads to accomplishment. If only that were true, then there’d be no more murders. Society knows a great deal about those heinous acts, and there are loads of measurements about them. But murder rates have been rising over the last couple of years, and we don’t see improved use of measurement data as a panacea.

And while we’re at it, we might as well take a jab at another phrase we don’t care for: “Performance-based budgeting.” Since nobody really bases budgets strictly on performance, we’ve long argued that it should be replaced with “performance-informed budgeting.”

We’re not alone there, we know.

As we pointed out in our book “The Promises and Pitfalls of Performance-Informed Management,” Phil Joyce, senior associate dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland “favors taking about performance-informed budgeting as opposed to performance-based budgeting. This better communicates the idea that the information that is gathered in performance management efforts can and should be used by budgeters and other decision makers including legislators. But it makes clear the fact that there is no actual formulaic connection among measures, evaluations, and budgets.”

Words matter. Let’s use the right ones, not the most dramatic ones.

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