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Benchmark goals change behavior and sometimes reveal the plasticity of numbers

“You can’t prevent people from gaming numbers, no matter how outstanding your organization. The moment you choose to manage by a metric, you invite your managers to manipulate it. Metrics are only proxies for performance. Someone who has learned how to optimize a metric without actually having to perform will often do just that. To create an effective performance measurement system, you have to work with that fact rather than resort to wishful thinking and denial.” This blunt reality comes from the Harvard Bus. Rev., Vol. 86, Oct. 2009 at 100.

A drawback to any benchmarking scorecard, therefore, is the risk that whoever’s ox is gored may turn to bull. Numbers will mysteriously transmute (See my post of March 11, 2009: gaming and manipulating with 12 references.). People will adjust their efforts and reporting to the priorities set by benchmarks.

Some of the article’s solutions to the problem of gaming are to (1) diversify the benchmarks, because it is harder to play around with several at once; (2) draw on various sources for metrics, because it is more difficult to fiddle with multiple contributors, and (3) vary the time periods covered, because that creates different scales and intervals. Another solution is to gather the metrics over several periods of time. A lawyer, for example, might manipulate the number of patents filed by splitting some inventions into more than one patent, but if the lawyer regularly does so there will still be meaningful data over several years. Stated differently, inflated or distorted measurements, when done consistently, still yield insights about performance — perhaps not the underlying “true” performance, but relative to prior years.

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