Not All That Matters Can Be Measured

by Stacey Barr

Einstein famously said this, that not all that matters can be measured. But in business, we’ve taken this way too far…

Money being washed down the drain symbolising invested money in an outcome not measured. Credit:

Einstein was right about so many things, and this is no exception:

Not all that matters can be measured. — Albert Einstein

Many things that matter are highly intangible and intrinsically complex. Often to the degree that, despite experiencing them, we don’t deeply understand them. Think of love, beauty and happiness. The act of measuring such things only trivialises them.

The problem with this cliché, however, is that we take it too far. Waaay too far. We apply it to everything in business that is not obviously and immediately countable, using it as an excuse not to measure outcomes that are qualitative, broad, intangible, high-level, or somewhat vague.

To measure is to know.

Let’s remind ourselves that to measure a goal meaningfully is to know, with as much objectivity and confidence as possible, whether or not it’s being achieved. Meaningful measurement is evidence that convinces us – and anyone else that has a stake in the goal – that it really is happening. And meaningful measurement is often more convincing that any one person’s opinion, any single data point, any sole observation.

When we have a goal that is a highly intangible and intrinsically complex outcome, and we resign ourselves to the ‘fact’ that it is immeasurable, it’s ironic. The irony is in setting ourselves a goal to achieve, but accepting we can never know if it is achieved. The irony continues when we realise that we’re blindly investing organisational resources into the achievement of such goals, but managing our financial performance with such ardor.

If we only have hope that our immeasurable outcomes will be achieved as a result of investing time and money into them, we can expect a lot of waste. Our ‘immeasurable’ outcomes are often the most important ones, so don’t they deserve just a little more effort to find meaningful evidence of their achievement?

To know is to understand.

Intangible outcomes are not immeasurable. They are just not understood. Not well enough, anyway.

The truth is that a rigorous process of trying to measure something intangible (yes, like PuMP) leads us through a logically-structured dialogue that helps us understand that ‘something’ more deeply. While it’s a bit on the esoteric side, I hope you ponder the following quote, as it’s a more encompassing articulation of what I’m trying to say:

Without mathematics we cannot penetrate deeply into philosophy. Without philosophy we cannot penetrate deeply into mathematics. Without both we cannot penetrate deeply into anything. — Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

To me, Leibniz means that to deeply understand anything, we need a combination of the quantitative and the qualitative. The quantitative gives dimension and shape to the qualitative, to make it more recognisable. The qualitative gives direction and substance to the quantitative, to make it more meaningful. Ergo, meaningful measures go hand-in-hand with recognisable outcomes.

PuMP is the more practical antidote to taking Einstein’s words too far. PuMP’s Measure Design technique is based on this belief (inspired by Douglas Hubbard’s Clarification Chain) particularly when we want to measure an outcome that is intangible:

If an outcome matters enough for us to invest resources to improve it, we should be able to describe it clearly enough to observe, in some way, if that outcome is changing or not. If we can observe a change, then we can quantify how often or how much it’s happening. If we can quantify it, we can measure it.

If an outcome matters enough to invest resources to achieve it, it inarguably matters enough to find a way to meaningfully measure it. [tweet this]

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