Leland Teschler, Executive Editor
On Twitter @ DW—LeeTeschler
I once worked at an organization where the boss kept his most powerful management technique secret from his superiors.
His secret sauce was the practice of in-depth peer reviews among professionals on the staff. Before any work left the department, it got scrutiny from other engineers there. And the review process was anything but perfunctory. Nobody wanted to look like a schmuck to their colleagues, so everyone made sure all the details of their work were above reproach. As a result, the output of that department was bulletproof.
The reason for keeping this review process secret was that it couldn’t be quantified. These comprehensive reviews took time. And the organization was big into metrics. The boss feared that his upper management would make him ash-can the whole review process because it was so “unproductive.”
He was right to worry, at least according to Catholic University of America history professor Jerry Z. Muller. Muller thinks organizations of all kinds see a need to quantify employee performance to the nth degree. One problem with this idea is that measurements have become a substitute for good judgment and exercising discretion. When managers aren’t allowed to determine what a particular situation requires, they often have to contend with an ever-tighter web of rules designed to account for every conceivable circumstance.
Of course, measurements of work effort, which have become common in recent years, can be helpful when they expose real problems. But the side effects of trying to quantify every activity can be counterproductive, says Muller. One result has been a diminished faith in professional judgment and a closer (and I’d add, much more annoying) monitoring of professionals whose judgment has been cast into doubt. Another downside has been less autonomy for lower-level employees who get stuck with preparing a constant stream of reports.
All that report writing may have another sinister effect: In recent years, IT industries have been the only sector of the economy showing gains in productivity. Muller thinks it’s fair to ask whether the time spent writing morale-sapping reports, instead of actually doing work, contributes to this economic stagnation.
The fixation on quantifiable goals also has had a surprising outcome: Modern-day businesses now demonstrate some of the same intrinsic faults as the old Soviet bloc, Muller says. Back in the days of the Cold War, central planners set output targets for factories, and Soviet managers responded by producing shoddy goods that met the numerical targets. Muller says the modern version of this phenomenon can be found in schools that graduate pupils with minimal skills, police departments that downgrade grand theft to misdemeanor-level petty larceny, and banks that open dummy accounts for unknowing customers.
Perhaps worse is the reality that when companies worship metrics, anything that doesn’t push the organization closer to meeting targets is likely to be ignored. Short-term goals get more consideration than long-term aspirations. That attitude can discourage managers from taking hard-to-quantify but potentially high-payoff risks and from following well-grounded hunches.
Unfortunately, people employed by organizations run by spreadsheets don’t have a lot of options. One alternative: Go underground, like my boss way-back-when, and hope management is too wrapped up in numbers to notice how the work really gets done.