The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Measuring contests are also exaggeration contests.
In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller attempts to argue that the introduction of managing by metrics had unforeseen consequences. By mandating “progress” against these metrics we forgot about the unmeasured and unmeasurable aspects. Which was bad. The solution is to be less caught up in managing to metrics and have bosses who use experience and judgement.
This book is a real mixed bag. I’m not sure my rating is fair but I will try to explain why I think this book fails to support its own argument which is pretty self-evidently true.
I wanted to read this book after seeing a short excerpt in Aeon magazine. This essay hinted at covering more broadly something one of my university professors had talked about.
My professor wrote a piece about how the introduction of what has come to be termed “publish or perish” was a terrible idea. He pointed out how it favoured some fields of research over others and established researchers over those early in their career. This obviously risked the very future of academia.
The metrics my professor was concerned about was the use of Impact Factor and number of papers published as part of staff performance measures. Sounds reasonable for academics to publish a certain amount in quality publications, doesn’t it? Except, some fields can produce a research paper in a month or two, while others need several years of experiments. That means the longer production timeline results in fewer papers, fewer citations, and the journals in those fields will have lower impact factors.
Of course, the universities went ahead with this anyway. Funny that higher education has become a bit of a factory churning out degree holders, with retention of postgraduates steadily declining.
This is all to say that Muller’s argument is not new, is well acknowledged as true, and is a serious problem. So in reading this book, I was hoping for some further insights and potential solutions. Which is why I found The Tyranny of Metrics so frustrating to read. On the one hand, it was able to articulate the problem, give examples, and prove its thesis. On the other hand, it would often misunderstand its own argument and provide yet another example of failing to grasp the problem.
One example I highlighted whilst reading was Muller’s discussion of how the epi-pen had its price hiked to make more money. Rather than look at the full picture of what this profit metric focus had done, Muller only looked at part of the picture, missing the impact on the people who couldn’t afford life-saving medicine.
This failure to take in the bigger picture then undermines his own argued solution to The Tyranny of Metrics. Muller thinks that wise and well-informed managers will be able to use their judgement to something something how good is Ayn Rand blah blah blah. My two-word rebuttal to this assertion was: bigotry and nepotism.
In fact, throughout The Tyranny of Metrics, Muller is full of apologetics for management in a way that is bordering on delusional. This shouldn’t have surprised me as he is a big fan of conservatism and capitalism, having written extensively on the two. Kinda hard to critique failures of those things when you’re in love with them.
I’ve been so frustrated by this book. It’s like watching a guy sidle up to the point and then furiously dash off into a field of rakes.
Overall, I can’t recommend The Tyranny of Metrics. While its thesis is true and fairly well supported and argued, it undermines itself constantly and offers grossly flawed solutions.
Comments while reading:
In defining the problem, Muller has already hinted at what he thinks is the solution. Hey, let’s replace these poorly thought out KPIs with whatever the boss reckons. That couldn’t possibly go wrong…
I mean, history isn’t littered with countless examples of racial, sexual, gender, and ethnic discrimination by bosses. No sir. And the saying, it isn’t what you know it’s who you know, isn’t still applicable.
One wonders where we will find all these amazing managers. Do we train them up internally as Muller suggests? Well, doesn’t that remove your best staff from their role and place them into management? Do we regard management as a career in and of itself? Not according to Muller.
This review raises this critique of the book as well: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…
Makes a good point about university and the unmeasurable benefits of attending, like meeting friends and spouses. Yep, that is a big one that no one even thinks to measure but are probably a big factor in how people view their university experience.
In talking about health care in the USA, he tries to point out factors that drive health outcomes that aren’t part of health care. One example was gun ownership and how “we need to keep guns out of irresponsible hands”… That’s a very American statement. Most any country would just admit that gun ownership is the problem. End of story.
Another very American moment: the epi-pen cost hike example. Interesting that this was framed in terms of the cost of share price and market value, along with confidence in the company. HOW ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO DIED BECAUSE THE EPI-PEN WAS TOO EXPENSIVE!?!?!
I’m finding the apologism for senior management, CEOs, etc, with regard to the dark side of performance metrics a little on the nose. There’s an element of “how were they to know?” or “employees rewarded for gaming the metrics” statements that are either untrue or a fraction of the story. And when this is used to explain things like the GFC it kinda makes you want to take the entire segment of the population who got shafted by the GFC round to Muller’s place for a little game of dilly twacking.
There are several assumptions built into this apologism, not least of which is the idea that management can’t be expected to know what’s going on in their organisations. But that isn’t incompetence… somehow… The worst aspect of this to my mind, however, is the direct evidence we have from post-GFC investigations that have shown complicit and explicit knowledge throughout the organisations. It’s a little to easy to blame the metrics and a little too easy to say that these were unintended consequences.
Ugh. Book written in 2018 dead names Chelsea Manning who transitioned immediately after her trial, the thing Muller was discussing. This shouldn’t surprise me as it appears Muller wrote a very academic essay saying “gay people should stay in the closet”. Bigotry isn’t okay. https://www.firstthings.com/article/1…
The point about transparency being bad is bonkers. He’s literally talking about war crimes being covered up and how exposing that is somehow bad. This is probably the worst point he makes in the book and shows how little he understands his own subject.
His argument about transparency isn’t without merit. Muller is correct that being too transparent can be detrimental. FOI requests are often weaponised, often the information released is deliberately misconstrued, especially with cherry-picking. But he misses the point about why we have FOIs and transparency. If governments, companies, and other organisations aren’t held accountable then they can literally get away with murder. This requires transparency so that we can create the checks and balances that are often lacking internally (deliberately or otherwise).
Oh, and the irony of writing a book about how metrics have lead us down a dark path but transparency is too idealistic is amazing. How exactly did we learn about metrics being bad without some transparency there Jerry?