We Must Measure, Because Our World Is Neither Predictable Nor Unpredictable

by Stacey Barr |

Forget all the cliches about why we measure performance. ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure.’ ‘What you measure is what you get.’ Why we measure performance is much more profound and fundamental.

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“If we lived on a planet where nothing ever changed, there would be little to do. There would be nothing to figure out. There would be no impetus for science. And if we lived in an unpredictable world, where things changed in random or very complex ways, we would not be able to figure things out. Again, there would be no such thing as science. But we live in an in-between universe, where things change, but according to patterns, rules, or, as we call them, laws of nature…” — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I find this quote from Carl Sagan one of the most inspiring motivations for measurement.

If the world was completely predictable, where nothing ever changed, organisations would be like perfect machines. Every output or outcome they intended to produce would be produced precisely as intended. Control is 100%.

At this extreme, there is no use for measuring performance, because performance is always perfect, with no variation. Our world isn’t like this. And that’s why performance targets of perfection – like 0 injuries or 100% on-time performance – make no sense, no matter how idealist or ‘right’ they might seem. Our organisations are not deterministic machines.

If the world was completely unpredictable, with no order at all, organisations wouldn’t exist, because the concept of organising would be impossible. Control is 0%.

At this extreme, there is no use for measuring performance, because performance varies so randomly that we could not observe patterns of causation, and therefore not learn how to exercise any degree of control over performance. Our world isn’t like this either. And there is no excuse for making decisions purely driven by gut feel or hearsay or tradition or whim. Our organisations are not putty in the hands of an individual.

Our world is in between these extremes of perfect predictability and perfect unpredictability. There is variation, but it’s not the product of complete randomness. It’s the product of complexity, and there is order in this complexity.

So in our in-between world, we have a use for measuring performance, because it helps us quantify the variation and observe patterns of causation. It helps us learn how we can influence performance by reducing variation, and by using or changing these patterns.

Performance measurement is an application of science to deepen our understanding of the complexity in our organisations, and speed up our identification of the patterns within that complexity, so we might get better and better, but never perfect, at creating the results we want.


Do you see in your organisation any evidence that suggests people believe the organisation is more predictable than it really is, or more unpredictable than it really is?

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