Why do we measure? The question, with its sheer simplicity, always stops me in my tracks. It is easy to respond with a number of high-minded and academic reasons describing why you should measure. The reasons include:
- To measure performance,
- To ensure our processes are efficient,
- To provide input for managing,
- To estimate, and
- To pass a CMMI appraisal (I really did not say that, but I might have).
All are true, important and common reasons to measure, but the answer isn’t complete. On reflection I would add two further reasons to measure:
- To control specific behavior, and
- To predict the future.
When we measure we are sending an explicit message about what is important to the organization, and therefore sending an explicit signal on how we expect people to act. Remember the old adage, “you get what you measure”. If you truly get what you measure, then measuring a specific outcome will change relative importance of that outcome in relation to all other outcomes. We have known for a long time that there is a link between measurement and behavior; therefore we can use measurement to guide behavior. Measuring requires us not only to examine the outcome we want to incent, but the impact it can have on the whole system that generates that output.
The pursuit of predicting the future is a mainstay of human culture. We practice prediction daily, like being able to predict whether there is a predator behind the next rock, whether planting corn or soybeans will bring a greater profit or even whether you favorite sports team will win their next match. Measurement provides the data to predict the future in a more disciplined manner than guessing based on instincts.
Changing behavior and predicting the future are related. It might almost be redundant to answer the question with both answers. Incenting a behavior is a mechanism for not only predicting the future by influencing the future but also a means to control the outcome. Why do we measure? The answer must include the common reasons, along with the ideas of measuring to control behavior and to predict the future.