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  • Dave Caperton

What Can't Be Measured Can't Be Ignored


We human beings have a few qualities that make us unique in the world of living things. We can communicate abstract ideas using symbols. We possess the ability to make art for art’s sake. But perhaps our most unique attribute is our amazing and seemingly unlimited ability to accept utter nonsense as long as it is disguised in a catchy phrase.


Back in 1970, there was a movie adapted from a book by Erich Segal that became a cultural phenomenon. The book sold millions but the movie was even more popular. The title, Love Story, was so generic it seemed almost original. It starred Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw with Ray Milland as a disapproving wealthy father who stands in the way of his son, Harvard student, Oliver Barrett III (O’Neal), and the middle class girl (McGraw) with whom he has fallen in love. Naturally, she develops a slight cough which is the deadliest symptom in movies, and slips beautifully away to the violin strains of the theme song (where do I begin…) and the accompanying sobs of the audience. Corny, but effective. Yet not nearly as effective as the tag line that became so idiomatic that almost 50 years later, people who weren’t even born when the movie came out can often come up with it. If you haven’t guessed it, it’s, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s a good line provided you don’t think about it, because if you do, you’re liable to realize it’s both stupid and untrue.


Love actually means saying you’re sorry. A lot! Why? Because loving someone doesn’t make you less likely to do and say dumb and hurtful things, but it does raise the chances that you’ll feel bad about those things and apologize for them precisely because you love the person you hurt. A truer line would be, “Indifference means never having to say you’re sorry,” but then who would have bought a ticket to see Apathy Story?


At the beginning of the quality movement, the emphasis on measurements and benchmarks became a kind of new religion in the corpo-verse. Every process was to be tracked and analyzed and measured for quality and consistency and constant improvement. It continues to yield many positive results but, like any good tool, it has its limits. A quote often attributed to business process expert and author, H. James Harrington began to pop up everywhere.


The line went, “Anything that can’t be measured, can’t be understood, and anything that can’t be understood, can’t be improved.” That’s a good line and it sounds really smart and insightful so lots of people in management said it to one another and to their teams so that those people would know how smart they were. But just like that line from Love Story, it wasn’t really true. Sure, lots of processes can be improved by applying measurements and setting benchmarks and tracking improvements, but anything? So a lot of important stuff that couldn’t be measured was dismissed as not improvable and therefore it must not be very important, and well, you get the idea.


How much do you love your family (enough to say you’re sorry)? Could you love them more?


How do you know? Have you ever felt more love for them at one moment than at another? So, how did you measure that? Can you quantify the amount of your love? No? Then how can you possibly understand it and so how can you improve it? Maybe it’s not important, but you don’t really believe that, do you? How much we love our families isimportant, perhaps the most important thing in life, yet there isn’t a reliable way to convert that feeling into data.


Some things lend themselves to measurements and so reveal ways to improve them. Some things are important but so intangible that no metric exists. Relationships and bonds between people contribute to success. Those intangible feelings make them more resilient and committed to one another in and it reflects in their efforts. It drives high levels of engagement and it mitigates stress. We might be able to collect data about whether or not bonds exist through assessments like the Gallup Q12 survey, but it offers no way to reliably measure the depth of those bonds. Yet most would agree that interpersonal bonds can be improved by bringing people together in common experiences to solve a problem, to share laughter, or to engage in some form of play.


In my first book, Happiness Is a Funny Thing, I shared the story of a news piece on healing power of humor for which I was interviewed by the local NBC affiliate in my hometown. They also interviewed Dr. Patch Adams and asked him about clinical studies that showed the therapeutic benefits of laughter. Instead of enthusiasm for this evidence, he rolled his eyes and said, "Yes, but so what? Have there ever been any studies showing any health benefits of being serious all the time?” He went on to explain that when we see a child who is hurting, we don’t demand clinical evidence for the health benefits of a hug, we just embrace them because we know on an instinctual level that it’s the right thing to do. Some things defy quantification but it doesn’t make them less important because they can’t be objectively measured.


One item on Gallup’s Q12 survey I mentioned earlier asks respondents “Do you have a best friend at work?” The answer to the question is evidence a level of personal engagement in the context of work. Why should that matter? Because, while the depth of our emotional connections to others may be impossible to measure (or to fully understand), the correlation between those connections and levels of engagement, productivity, innovation, cooperation and customer satisfaction is undeniable.


Anything that can’t be measured can’t be understood? Maybe. Anything that can’t be measured can’t be improved? Not necessarily. But if we can’t think of a way to measure something, does that mean it's not important? Absolutely not.

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