There is a famous adage: you get what you measure.  The point is if you focus on a specific activity or process, people will perform.Unfortunately the tendency to please and feedback can create an addiction or a fixation with a single metric or attribute. Fixation is an extreme of behavior that can cause the addict to exclude what is really important. Fixating and chasing a single measure to exclusion of everything else is the sin of lust in the measurement world. Lust, like wrath, is a loss of control which affects your ability to think clearly. Balanced goals and medium to long-term focus are tools to defeat the worst side effects of measurement lust. The ultimate solution is a focus on the long-term goals of the organization.

How does this type of unbalanced behavior occur?  Usually measurement lust is generated by either an unbalanced measurement programs or performance compensation programs.   Both cases can generate the same types of unintended consequences. I call this the “one number syndrome”. An example of the “one number syndrome” is when outsourcing contracts include penalty and bonus clauses based on a single measure, such as productivity improvements.  Productivity is a simple metric that can be affected by a wide range of attributes. Therefore just focusing on productivity can have all sorts of outcomes.  For example productivity can be impacted by changing the levels of quality, the throughput of project through the organization can be varied by throttling the work entering the organization generally increasing productivity or by changing staffing levels or location.  None of the common tactics for improving productivity may have the consequence you intended if you are fixated on just the measure.

A critical shortcoming caused by measurement lust is a shift toward short-term thinking. We have all seen the type of short-term thinking that occurs when the manager (or an organization) does everything in their power to make some monthly goal. At the time the choices seem to be perfectly rational, but short-term thinking has the ability to convert the choices made today into the boat anchors of the next quarter.  In a cycle of chasing short-term goals with short-term thinking, a major failure is merely a matter of time. I’m convinced from reading the accounts of the Enron debacle that the cycle of short-term thinking generated by the lust to meet their numbers made it less and less likely that anyone could perceive just how irrational their decisions were becoming.

The fix is easy (at least conceptually). You need to recognize that measurement is a behavioral tool and create a balanced set of measures (frameworks like the Balanced Scorecard are very helpful) that therefore encourage balanced behavior.  I strongly suggest that as you are defining measures and metrics, take the time to forecast the behaviors each measure could generate.  Ask yourself whether these are the behaviors you want and whether other measures will be needed to avoid negative excesses.

Lust rarely occurs without a feedback loop that enables the behavior. Balanced goals, balanced metrics, balanced feedback and balanced compensation are all a part of plan to generate balanced behavior. Imbalances of any of these layers will generate imbalances in behavior. Rebalancing can change behavior but just make sure it is the behavior you anticipate and it doesn’t cause the cascade failure of measurement lust.

This was broadcast on the Software Process and Measurement Cast 108.