How to Measure Success

January 28, 2022

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”?
                                              -Peter Drucker  

This makes perfect sense, but there is a danger in measuring  we should be aware of. There's something called the Streetlight Fallacy: A person goes down to the street in the middle of the night. It is very dark, pitch dark. He sees his friend under a streetlight looking for something on the ground.

What are you looking for?
I lost my keys.
Where did you lose your keys?
At the end of the street.
So, why are you looking here?
Because the light is here.

Once you start measuring, you run the risk of only looking at the things you can measure and ignoring those things that cannot be measured. The danger is that your measuring might undermine the purpose of your existence—in other words, it may divert your attention from your real goal which might not measurable, only verifiable.

For instance . . .

I approached a hospital (I will not mention its name to avoid any legalities) to see if they would give me a kidney transplant. I had volunteers to donate it for me.  This leading hospital asked me how old I am. When I told them I'm above 80 (at the time, I was 82), they refused to take me because their cut-off age is 80. They did not check the state of my health, or whether I am physically younger than my years, nothing. Their policy was: if you are over 80, you cannot have a kidney transplant.

The question, then, is “Why?” I believe that because this hospital is considered a world leader in kidney transplants, and to remain in the lead they must maintain a high success rate,  that they maintain their high rate of success by not taking any marginal cases—such as people who are older than 80.

Another hospital in the country (also top ranked) was willing to perform transplants for those above 80, but refused all the donors I brought in. One was too young. The other one was too old. The third had diabetes. The fourth had diabetics in his family. The fifth was overweight. The sixth was underweight. The seventh . . .. The common denominator was always the same: Any match that had even a marginal potential of failure, they would not take. They went only for sure cases and by doing so, they were considered  among the top-ranked transplant hospitals in the country. In the meantime, I was dying.

What happened to the physician’s oath? Is the goal to be the best in rank or to help people in need? Did the measurement of who is “Top Ranked” or has the “Highest Success Rate” sabotage the mission of these organizations? Was there a goal substitution because of the system of measure? I think the measurement became the goal, rather than a means to verify goal achievement.

I was talking to a dentist, a leading dentist in the country. He was telling me how disappointed he is (and it is an understatement to say disappointed) with the quality of graduates from leading dental schools today. A professor at one of these schools confided in him that the schools are being ranked, and one way to measure rank is how many students graduate versus how many are rejected and fail. To gain a higher rank with a higher rate of passing graduates, they let many marginal students pass. They avoid failing students, and the result is low quality among the graduates.

It's very, very important to measure everything—to be sure that you know how well you are doing—but when you take a measurement to validate a certain rate of success, there is a chance that the measurement will become the driving goal of the organization. Especially if a reward system is attached to it. And the real goal (the one that is truly important), which cannot easily be measured, only validated, gets lost in the weeds. Validation is subjective, and thus, debatable.

In Adizes methodology, we look at an organization’s goals and ask ourselves, “Should they be measured, or should they be just verified?”

You can measure what you want to verify but it is a different kind of a measurement. It’s like blood pressure. You measure blood pressure, but more is not better, less is not better. There is a certain pressure that is healthy, and that's all you want. In other words, you validate. You use a measurement for validation, but not as the only way, or the only tool, of measuring success.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes