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Quote, Unquote - “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”

I am sure most of you will have heard this one and I was reminded of it this morning on my commute to the annexe by an article entitled "7 Powerful Quotes to Improve Your Leadership" from today's Medium digest. It isn't one of them but it did get me thinking about misquotes.

Attributed, correctly, to the statistician and data-driven management guru Dr. W Edwards Deming the 'measure it to manage it' quote is thrown around like a grenade by those who are also prone to asking "How many hours is a Story Point?" And who could argue? It is, after all, a direct quote from the great man. Conclusion; if we don't have a metric associated with it we shouldn't be doing it.

I am sure that many of you are already there with the punchline but for those unfamiliar with this one, that quote is incomplete and, perhaps, should not be attributed to the great Doctor as it definitely isn't the meaning he was trying to convey. What he actually said was:

"It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth."

In reality, there are many, many things that can't be measured but still have to be managed, and leaders have to make decisions about, without the numbers to back them up. Data-Driven is hugely powerful and the data science sorcerers and Power BI dashboard diviners I've encountered have been worth their weight in gold. But ...

There is still stuff we have to deal with every day that it simply isn't possible and/or cost-effective to measure. What is the precise benefit of a happy customer? What is the benefit of a coach; what is to say the team wouldn't have achieved anyway? I appreciate I may be on dodgy ground here so while we can compare the growth and efficacy of the un-coached vs. coached in reality teams are composed of human beings with differing levels of skill, motivation, mood, cohesion &c., the list goes on.

It would take a lot of work on large sample size, teams of teams, sans coaches, compared to teams of teams with coaches to get meaningful numbers to crunch, in order to manage coaching. And yet ... we (Agile Coaches) all have careers because organisations know that coaching brings benefits and, therefore, decisions are made and coaching is managed (with very little in the way of direct measurement).

So the next time you hear that quote being trotted out you can, politely and with a smile, put the speaker right and, though this one isn't so snappy or memorable, point them at another of Dr. Deming's missives, from his book Out of the Crisis.

"the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable (Lloyd S. Nelson, director of statistical methods for the Nashua corporation), but successful management must nevertheless take account of them."

P.S. Though oft-quoted and also attributed to Deming, "In God we trust, all others bring data." scholars of his think it may actually have been someone he worked with and is not something he would ever have said.

P.P.S. According to someone who worked closely with Deming he also didn't say "It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory", it was actually "Survival is optional, no one has to change". But I guess the former looks better on the email signature or as a quote in your book


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