Metrics, Means, and Maps

As a younger man, I spent a lot of time reading and discussing philosophy.

In the end, I was most attracted to modern moral theorists like Rawls and Nozick, but like all Philosophy majors at the State University of New York at Binghamton, I spent some time with all of the greats: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, Marcuse, Arendt, and so forth.

(In fact, in the forward of Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick describes what I think is the most perfect description of all professional academia, not just Philosophy. I’m away from my copy, but I’ll post the passage when I get home!) edit: I gave it its own Post!

I’m bringing this up because one of my least favorite philosophers to read was Immanuel Kant. I struggled with Kant, like I suspect many 20 year olds do, as his writing is so incredibly dense, and translated from the original German. One piece of his moral philosophy that stands with me is this: to behave morally, a moral agent must treat other humans always as ends in themselves, and never as means.

To be more philosophically precise, Immanuel says never to treat other humans merely as means, but always as ends as well.  So, it’s not necessarily immoral to treat another human as a means, so long as you keep them in mind as an end also. It’s a tricky bit that’s easy to forget. Kant, he’s dense.

One thing that we need to bear in mind, whatever department we’re working in, is that our metrics are necessarily abstractions, a means to a larger end. In this way our mindset needs to be like Kant’s – some things are ends, some things are means, and we should be intentional about which is which, and remind ourselves that the distinction is important.

A quote that came up a number of times at the Growth Hackers convention this year was this: “Be careful what you optimize for,” and that, too, points at what I’m getting at here.

Our metrics, our measurable indicators of success, must necessarily be abstractions from real life. 

By this, I mean, reducing churn by 10% is only a means to a larger end, and has to be considered in that larger context. What’s the real reason? Why do you, personally and as an organization, want to reduce churn? Maybe it’s because you believe you have a product that can genuinely make peoples’ lives better, so the more folks who use it, longer, the better off they’ll be. That’s great! Maybe it’s to make more money – that’s OK too. 

In either of these cases, churn reduction is itself only a means toward a larger end. Success with this metric points to a larger success, something that you’re maybe not equipped to measure, something like Customer Happiness or Success of the Business. We need to keep this in mind.

Another quote that’s on my mind a lot these days: “The map is not the territory.

Our metrics are only maps upon which we build our assumptions and beliefs – the underlying terrain, the real territory of your customers and your business, is far more complex, far more nuanced. Remember that we use metrics because they are abstractions, because they take our complex world that is impossible to understand all at once, and break it into easier-to-understand chunks.

Our metrics are by design not the whole truth. They’re reductive because they must be – because only by reducing a complex concept can we hope to make meaningful decisions. If our metric were the whole truth, if the map were a perfectly accurate representation of the whole territory, it would be perfectly useless.

Measuring our work, and our companies, and our success or lack of success, is absolutely vital to the success of any enterprise in 2016. Choosing the right metrics, and bearing in mind that our metrics only represent one part of the truth, is the hard part.

 

3 thoughts on “Metrics, Means, and Maps

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