Who doesn’t have a dozen favorite Drucker quotes? “Drucker” is, of course, Peter Drucker the legendary management guru who lives on in quotes.
And that’s the problem.
A lot of business people know all the great Drucker quotes, but they’ve never read the books. Or they read the books years ago and forgot the points, remembering only the quotes.
What’s worse, people actually run companies and departments and government agencies by Drucker quotes. Not Drucker concepts, which work, but Drucker quotes—misremembered, out of context, and incomplete.
If Drucker had known how some of his quotes would be abused, even reversed to defend bad management, he would have never said them.
For the sake of American business, I propose we banish one famous Drucker quote from the language and from the practice of management.
“What gets measured gets managed.”
This is the most evil and destructive Drucker quote of all time. I hear it at least once a month, usually to justify elimination of tasks that cannot easily be measured using the kinds of simple yardsticks executives fancy. Ya know, unmeasurable work like ingenuity, coaching, innovation, creativity, and, Drucker's favorite, imagination.
Yet, Drucker’s own work, if anyone bothered to read the books, counters the popular misunderstanding of the quote. For example, Drucker’s praise of knowledge workers includes this caveat:
Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective. This is not capable of being measured by any of the yardsticks for manual work.
Moreover, because knowledge work cannot be measured the way manual work can, one cannot tell a knowledge worker in a few simple words whether he is doing the right job and how well he is doing it.
How often do executives push down responsibility for profits to the lowest levels of the company? And each time, these executives use Drucker’s bastardized quote to justify the proliferation of P&L down to call center reps. Again, if these executives bothered to read Drucker, they would quickly learn how wrong they are:
He saw to it that the yardsticks throughout the system by which managers and their operations were judged, measured service fulfillment rather than profit performance. Managers are responsible for service results. It is then the job of top management to organize and finance the company so as to make the best service also result in optimal financial rewards.
And the effective executive, as Drucker called them, are diligent about what to measure:
The automobile companies measured only by the conventional averages of number of accidents per passenger mile or per car. Had they gone out and looked, they would have seen the need to measure also the severity of bodily injuries resulting from accidents. And this would soon have highlighted the need to supplement their safety campaigns by measures aimed at making the accident less dangerous; that is, by automotive design. Finding the appropriate measurement is thus not a mathematical exercise. It is a risk-taking judgment.
But finding the appropriate measurement is hard work, so most executives simply tell the lowest-level employee to make more money and cut costs.
Yes, the world would be better off if Drucker had never said “what gets measured gets managed.” He must have assumed that the people who read it, executives, would execute the idea in the context of Drucker’s entire work. But executives do not. Instead, they use the quote to defend bad decisions—decisions often in direct violation of Drucker’s philosophy.
The good news: Drucker never said it.
Those who apochriphally attribute the quote to Drucker might actually be referring to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin: "If you can not measure it, you can not improve it."
The full proposition is: 'What gets measured gets managed - even when it's pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.'
Got that, American business executives? Be very, very careful what you measure and what importance you place on the numbers. As Ridgway explains in his paper, "Dysfunctional Consequences of Performance Management" (pdf available here, and I highly recommend it):
Quantitative measures of performance are tools, and are undoubtedly useful. But research indicates that indiscriminate use and undue confidence and reliance in them result from insufficient knowledge of the full effects and consequences. Judicious use of a tool requires awareness of possible side effects and reactions. Otherwise, indiscriminate use may result in side effects and reactions outweighing the benefits, as was the case when penicillin was first hailed as a wonder drug. The cure is sometimes worse than the disease.
Being a Drucker fan, I’m happy to learn and pass along the fact that Peter Drucker never said the thing I wish Drucker never said.
Now, if business executives would unlearn it, we’d all be better off.
(Note: All Drucker quotes are taken from his book, The Effective Executive. Read it.)