Jerry Z. Muller on The Tyranny of Metrics

Today, organizations of all kinds are ruled by the belief that the path to success is quantifying human performance, publicizing the results, and dividing up the rewards based on the numbers. But in our zeal to instill the evaluation process with scientific rigor, we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. The result is a tyranny of metrics that threatens the quality of our lives and most important institutions. In this timely and powerful book, Jerry Muller uncovers the damage our obsession with metrics is causing—and shows how we can begin to fix the problem. Complete with a checklist of when and how to use metrics, The Tyranny of Metrics is an essential corrective to a rarely questioned trend that increasingly affects us all.

What’s the main idea?

We increasingly live in a culture of metric fixation: the belief in so many organizations that scientific management means replacing judgment based upon experience and talent with standardized measures of performance, and then rewarding or punishing individuals and organizations based upon those measures. The buzzwords of metric fixation are all around us: “metrics,” “accountability,” “assessment,” and “transparency.” Though often characterized as “best practice,” metric fixation is in fact often counterproductive, with costs to individual satisfaction with work, organizational effectiveness, and economic growth.

The Tyranny of Metrics treats metric fixation as the organizational equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It helps explain why metric fixation has become so popular, why it is so often counterproductive, and why some people have an interest in pushing it. It is a book that analyzes and critiques a dominant fashion in contemporary organizational culture, with an eye to making life in organizations more satisfying and productive.

Can you give a few examples of the “tyranny of metrics?”

Sure. In medicine, you have the phenomenon of “surgical report cards” that purport to show the success rates of surgeons who perform a particular procedure, such as cardiac operations. The scores are publicly reported. In an effort to raise their scores, surgeons were found to avoid operating on patients whose complicated circumstances made a successful operation less likely. So, the surgeons raised their scores. But some cardiac patients who might have benefited from an operation failed to get one—and died as a result. That’s what we call “creaming”—only dealing with cases most likely to be successful.

Then there is the phenomenon of goal diversion. A great deal of K-12 education has been distorted by the emphasis that teachers are forced to place on preparing students for standardized tests of English and math, where the results of the tests influence teacher retention or school closings. Teachers are instructed to focus class time on the elements of the subject that are tested (such as reading short prose passages), while ignoring those elements that are not (such as novels). Subjects that are not tested—including civics, art, and history—receive little attention.

Or, to take an example from the world of business. In 2011 the Wells Fargo bank set high quotas for its employees to sign up customers who were interested in one of its products (say, a deposit account) for additional services, such as overdraft coverage or credit cards. For the bank’s employees, failure to reach the quota meant working additional hours without pay and the threat of termination. The result: to reach their quotas, thousands of bankers resorted to low-level fraud, with disastrous effects for the bank. It was forced to pay a fortune in fines, and its stock price dropped.

Why is the book called The Tyranny of Metrics?

Because it helps explain and articulate the sense of frustration and oppression that people in a wide range of organizations feel at the diversion of their time and energy to performance measurement that is wasteful and counterproductive.

What sort of organizations does the book deal with?

There are chapters devoted to colleges and universities, K-12 education, medicine and health care, business and finance, non-profits and philanthropic organizations, policing, and the military. The goal is not to be definitive about any of these realms, but to explore instances in which metrics of measured performance have been functional or dysfunctional, and then to draw useful generalizations about the use and misuse of metrics.

What sort of a book is it? Does it belong to any particular discipline or political ideology?

It’s a work of synthesis, drawing on a wide range of studies and analyses from psychology, sociology, economics, political science, philosophy, organizational behavior, history, and other fields. But it’s written in jargon-free prose, that doesn’t require prior knowledge of any of these fields. Princeton University Press has it classified under “Business,” “Public Policy,” and “Current Affairs.” That’s accurate enough, but it only begins to suggest the ubiquity of the cultural pattern that the book depicts, analyzes, and critiques. The book makes use of conservative, liberal, Marxist, and anarchist authors—some of whom have surprising areas of analytic convergence.

What’s the geographic scope of the book?

In the first instance, the United States. There is also a lot of attention to Great Britain, which in many respects was at the leading edge of metric fixation in the government’s treatment of higher education (from the “Teaching Quality Assessment” through the “Research Excellence Framework”), health care (the NHS) and policing, under the rubric of “New Public Management.” From the US and Great Britain, metric fixation—often carried by consultants touting “best practice”—has spread to Continental Europe, the Anglosphere, Asia, and especially China (where the quest for measured performance and university rankings is having a particularly pernicious effect on science and higher education).

Is the book simply a manifesto against performance measurement?

By no means. Drawing on a wide range of case studies from education to medicine to the military, the book shows how measured performance can be developed and used in positive ways.

Who do you hope will read the book?

Everyone who works in an organization, manages an organization, or supervises an organization, whether in the for-profit, non-profit, or government sector. Or anyone who wants to understand this dominant organizational culture and its intrinsic weaknesses.

Jerry Z. Muller is the author of many books, including Adam Smith in His Time and Ours and Capitalism and the Jews. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.