Metrics are now ubiquitous. Supposedly a useful management tool to maximise profitability and productivity, the measurement of specific targets and how they have been achieved, is everywhere. Prima facie, metrics do what they say on the tin. They are markers that tell us something about how resources are being used; how much waste there is; how people, and things, match up to expectations, or not. In theory, all useful, valuable stuff. In practice, metrics have become time-consuming bugbears that require reports and analysis of even the smallest events, providing “rich data” that is itself then analysed rather than doing the things that were being measured in the first place. Think about all those requests you get asking for feedback, when buying something, for example.
In moderation, metrics help us to understand what we do and how we do it which enables better performance. But reducing as much as possible of what we do to measureable output means that what we can’t measure, gets pushed aside and more sinisterly, what we can measure but which fails to meet pre-set expectations ranks poorly and that kills off creativity and risk-taking with potentially serious consequences.
The Archbishop’s observation that what we measure, controls us is far-reaching.
Sometimes that is a good thing such as monitoring the speed at which we drive or the recording of our blood pressure; or marking points in our days according to an agreed way of measuring time – can you imagine the chaos of a world without that?
Sometimes it is a bad thing, such as making us believe that what we measure in life is the most important thing. But can you measure love or hope, joy or grief? Can you measure God? To limit ourselves to what we can measure will always limit us either to what has been preset or to the limits inherent within any measuring system.
There is also the risk that by becoming fixated on measuring things, we may actually end up with a result which is the very opposite of what we intend. For example, it’s a well known fact that dieters who measure both what they eat and their own weight obsessively, often eat more than, and fail to manage their weight as well as, those who don’t.
Even more sinister is the mirror image of the Archbishop’s thesis that tells us , “What we measure, we control.” This is equally, if not more, dangerous. It tells us that what we are able to pin down in terms of measurements, we are able to pin down and manipulate in other ways. The Bible is ahead of us on the dangers of that. Think of the strange episode of King David incurring God’s serious displeasure by counting his troops. The story is told, not just once, but twice in the Old Testament, in 1 Chronicles ch 21 and 1 Samuel ch 24.
I’ve always been puzzled as to why this is such an arrant piece of wrongdoing. What was so wrong about David counting his fighting strength? But it was perceived to rile God so much that David’s punishment was a stark choice of three years of famine, three years of continual defeat in battle, or three days of deadly plague. In a damage limitation exercise, David opts for the plague but the impact is so devastating that even God has second thoughts and David pleads for God to desist, saying to him, “Was it not I who ordered the fighting men to be counted? I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. … O Lord my God let your hand fall upon me and my family but do not let this plague remain on your people.” (1 Chronicles 21:17)
I wonder if perhaps it is this business of thinking that what we measure is ours to control, deploy and dispose of at whim that is at the heart of David’s sin. The consequences for the Israelites are serious. Even though God stops the plague, 70,000 have already died from it and David has to make reparation by buying a site for an altar that costs him 600 gold shekels (the equivalent of c. £78,000 or US $97,500 at today’s gold prices) and making a lot of sacrifices and burnt offerings. Even then, he is conscious he has only got away by the skin of his teeth and dares not approach the tabernacle at Gibeon “because he was afraid of the sword of the angel of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 21:30)
Maybe this story has a warning for us too that seeking to measure, and thereby control, is not the way God wants us to relate to one another and the world around us and we should approach any such exercise with caution and humility.
Some things to ponder this week:
- What “metrics” do you find helpful or unhelpful in daily life?
- How would you feel about a context where the normal measures of life were absent? What do you think you might discover?
- Why do you think we are often afraid of what we can’t measure?
- What might we be measuring in our lives, because, consciously or unconsciously, we think it gives us control, but which we should abandon? Keeping a record in our minds of grievances or perceived unfairnesses might be an obvious one “Love … keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:5) but there may well be others.