The worship of the yardstick

I just read this article (the text of a presentation, really): James L. McConaughy, The worship of the yardstick, Educational Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, March 1918, pp. 191-200

(Yes, that is: nineteen eighteen.)

How did I get there? First, I read The Tyranny of Metrics, which cited Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which cited this article. (I like to follow the citations because I'm a Super-Fun Guy.) All three of them, for me, have ineluctable titles—tyranny, cult, worship—that leave little doubt about which direction they're approaching from. Moreover, they're all related to a problem that drives me crazy nearly every day: the unquenchable, unquestioning love for measurement at work.

It's out of balance. On a recent project, metrics (the word that means "measurement" at work) accounted for nearly 50% of our group's time—so much so that it was necessary at the culmination to bring in extra people to actually do the work. Here's a natural question to ask: did the work get done? Of course not. Mission Accomplished.

Here's where I drive people crazy: I push back. But I think I'm misunderstood. Because I'm such a smooth talker when I get worked up. I'm not against metrics or measurement—I use measurements unprompted in my own life—but rather the mindless way in which they're applied. I get upset when the project bureaucrat asks why a document is only 84% done when the plan clearly states that it should be 87% done. It's like someone knocking on the bathroom door, upset that you're only 84% done taking a dump when you've clearly been in there long enough to be 87% done. What? Anyway. It's not a real measurement. There is no such thing as an 84% done document. It's a heuristic. It's not real. But measurements become very real when everyone pretends they're real. And measurements become the standard against which rewards and punishments are meted out. After a while people forget that the numbers aren't real, and they don't think very deeply about what the measurements mean. And they don't have any feeling in their hearts for the product itself, which is just some sort of abstract byproduct of the process.

I will die on this hill.

Here's one other worry that I have about the cult of metrics. Whenever I get saddled with some new measurement, I try to find a way before the end of the day to automate the calculation. I get to do a little bit of thinking while setting up the algorithm, and it costs me less time over the long haul. Win-win. But what becomes of the people who every day, every week, etc., devote non-negligible amounts of their time to manually calculating things that are easy to replace with a program? I guess we'll find out.

A week in review, 2018-W25

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Errors of omission

Now for a key fact: accounting systems in the western world only take account of errors of commission, the less important of the two types of error. They take no account of errors of omission. Therefore, in an organization that frowns on mistakes and in which only errors of commission are identified, a manager only has to be concerned about doing something that should not have been done. Because errors of omission are not recorded they often go unacknowledged. If acknowledged, accountability for them is seldom made explicit. In such a situation a manager who wants to invoke as little disapproval as possible must try either to minimize errors of commission or transfer to others responsibility for those he or she makes.

The best way to do this is to do nothing, or as little as one can get away with. This is a major reason that organizations do not make radical changes.

—Russell L. Ackoff. "Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking". Systems Research and Behavioral Science 23 (December 2006): 705-708.

Side project loss limit

Here's an episode of Side Hustle School that caught my ear last week: #529 - Unemployed Polish Guy Launches Rocket-Fueled Vodka Line, 2018-06-13

The product itself isn't interesting to me. (I am into rockets. But not vodka.) However, the idea of trying to start a new product with a loss limit was interesting. $10,000—if it grows, keep going; if not, cut your losses and go home.

That's not a revolutionary idea. That's how I do it in Las Vegas—go out with $100 or $200 in one pocket (and no debit card), and play until it grows or it's gone. That's how I do it buying stocks—buy and set a stop limit. But I had never thought about doing it with a side business. I think I'm going to steal the idea, although not with vodka or $10,000.

What could I do with $100 or $1000 in a month?

A week in review, 2018-W24

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Matthew McConnaughey's scene in The Wolf of Wall Street

Added to /links

Podcasts: Seth Godin, Akimbo

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Garden watcher

Upcoming

Develop the instinct to be comfortable doing things that feel uncomfortable

Here's a long riff by Seth Godin from the Q&A section of an episode on his Akimbo podcast, The long term.

It stuck with me when I heard it a few weeks ago. For one thing, I'm not a very compliant worker, so I guess I ought to find a way to be a pathfinder before getting reassigned to the Island of Misfit Toys. Another reason it stuck with me is because I recently finished taking a machine learning course at the U of Illinois this spring. About a third of the way through the course, there emerged this mania among the students for having a defined rubric for the homework problems. What a waste. The main thing that I took from the course was that there is plenty of room for art in machine learning—the answers aren't completely defined. There is a mathematical underpinning to the work (for the most part) but there is room to try things, in some cases very simple things, to make the algorithms provide better results. But I'd hesitate to call the results answers.

I sympathize with the students for demanding some determinism on how their results would be graded because their grades will have a bearing on their probability of employment and how much they earn. I get the pressure to do what it takes to pump up those variables. But that comes at a loss of the real reward from that class, which would be to explore the problems and see how they work, explain the approach and results, and accept that there may be no answer. I enjoyed the freedom, as an old guy taking a single class with no GPA to protect, to play.

Anyway, here's the riff:


Consider the typical day in the typical school.

Of those six or seven hours that the student is at school, how many minutes are spent on compliance? How many minutes are spent on doing what you're told? Then let's look at how much time is spent on finding the right answer. Minute by minute. Compliance. The right answer. Getting a good grade. Fitting in. Doing what you're told.

Of the 400 minutes that someone is going to spend in school--300 minutes that someone is going to spend in school today, how much time are they spending on those two tasks? I think if we're honest, in the typical school, we'd have to agree it's between 90 and 95% of the time. The rest of the time, perhaps, the student is left alone to daydream, to think bigger thoughts, to come up with something new. But rarely.

Leadership, and relevant to the last podcast, genius, an act of genius, isn't about that. It's about solving interesting problems. We rarely give our kids a chance to solve an interesting problem. We'd prefer to give them a problem where we already know the answer. Because the purpose of giving them the problem isn't to develop their creativity, their insight, their ability to lead. The purpose is to gain compliance, predictability, to produce compliant workers who will do what they're told for years to come.

So the answer to your question, I think, is that we need to figure out how to give students the chance to solve problems that they are probably going to be unable to solve. Not because they're too hard, but because there is no answer. There's merely an attempt, and then another attempt. That we can train our kids for ourselves to get comfortable with the idea that we can be uncomfortable. To be okay with the thought that we can write something down that isn't the right answer.

So, how do teach somebody to write something original? How do we teach them to work at figuring out an advanced math theorem that has never been solved and might never be solved? How do we help them pathfind? Because pathfinding is the task that is in highest demand right now. Pathfinding says, "We're lost, not completely lost, just a little lost. We're not exactly sure where we want to go. We're not exactly sure how to get there. Does anyone want to help us find a way?" And if we can help kids--6 year olds, 10 year olds, 15 year olds--develop the instinct to be comfortable doing things that feel uncomfortable, then we develop the ability to act, at least for a little bit, like a genius.

Data fictions

Those who gather and interpret such aggregate data understand that there is a certain fictional and arbitrary quality to their categories and that they hide a wealth of problematic variation. Once set, however, these thing categories operate unavoidably as if all similarly classified cases were in fact homogeneous and uniform.

—James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Chapter 2: Cities, People, and Language (notes)

This is one of the aspects of work that I really try to press on younger engineers: metrics are just metrics. Especially in organizations that live and die by earned value management, it's easy to forget: the map is not the territory. Metrics are just metrics. People get hung up on the difference between, e.g., a specification being 82% done and 83% done. It doesn't matter. It's the trend that matters. The specific number is just a heuristic. It has no meaning as a precise measurement like the outside temperature or your tire pressure. It's just a formula that I applied to a database based on a tailoring of a company-wide process instruction with weights that I applied based on experiences (read: bias).

But the real problem is that once you put that heuristic into place—that definition or interpretation of the data that everyone knows at the onset is a useful fiction—it tends to become Law. The old people forget or move on, and the new people never knew. Whether out of fear or custom, one thing is certain: the Law must be upheld. What happens to the person who tries to remind everyone that, hey, wait, that's not a law, that's just a helpful fiction? Enjoy wearing that big scarlet A on your chest, Asshole, it matches your eyes.

Metrics are like your speedometer reading: glance at it when you need to know, but don't stare at it or you'll really be in trouble.

Anyway, Matthew Mcconaughey does it better:

Fugazi, Fugazzi. It's a wazzy, it's a woozy. It's [whistles] fairy dust. It doesn't exist. It's Neverlanded. It is no matter. It's not on the elemental chart. It's not fucking real.

Finished reading: In the Company of Giants

Rama Dev Jager and Rafael Ortiz, In the Company of Giants: Candid Conversations with the Visionaries of the Digital World, 1997.

I found this book while searching the Boeing Library to see if they had a copy of The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision of the Future by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL. They didn't. But searching on Steve Case brought up this book—OK, good enough. (St. Louis County Library has a copy, though: book, audiobook.)

It's two MBA students from Stanford interviewing people who started computer software and hardware companies, mostly in Silicon Valley. I enjoyed it. Filter out the boilerplate and marketing talk, and you get a look into a creative culture that really doesn't exist anymore. This book was released in 1997, and the interviewees are established people looking back. It has an old school feeling to it—the stories are of less polished beginnings, with less starter money, than seems to be the case today. (Not that I know about it personally—the feeling from 2000 miles away is that there is no shortage of money to go around for ventures.)

There are two funny points that kept coming up in the interviews. (1) Prognostications about what the internet might provide. It's hard to remember the internet in 1997—four years old, still an infant. (2) people who developed things that are fundamental and nearly invisible today because of their ubiquity (Adobe, Intuit), or fundamental and invisible because they defined how things work in their industry and went away (AOL, DEC).

Another book to read in the same vein is Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days, with interviews by Jessica Livingston. I prefer it to Company of Giants, but reading both won't harm anyone.

People interviewed in the book:

  • Steve Jobs (Apple)
  • T.J. Rodgers (Cypress Semiconductor)
  • Gordon Eubanks (Symantec)
  • Steve Case (AOL)
  • Scott Cook (Intuit)
  • Sandy Kurtzig (ASK)
  • John Warnock and Charles Geschke (Adobe)
  • Michael Dell (Dell)
  • Charles Wang (Computer Associates)
  • Bill Gates (Microsoft)
  • Andy Grove (Intel)
  • Trip Hawkins (Electronic Arts)
  • Ed McCracken (Silicon Graphics)
  • Ken Olsen (Digital Electronics Corporation)
  • Bill Hewlett (Hewlett Packard)

A few lines that caught my eye:

[John Warnock, p. 111] The money and all of that stuff is nice, but it’s not why we started Adobe. It just isn’t in the equation. The money is more a measure of how well you’ve run your business and the impact you’ve had on the market.

[Michael Dell, p. 120] If you think I came into this business with a master plan—we knew everything we were going to do in the next 12 years... Wrong. We made lots of mistakes. But we corrected those mistakes reall fast, and we often didn’t make the same mistake twice. Or if we did, it wasn’t fatal.

[Charles Wang, p. 142] If people keep telling me what I want to hear, then I tell them, "If you and I agree all the time, then one of us is redundant—and it ain't me. Now you figure that one out." And they understand.

[Ed McCracken, p. 198] Well, I certainly agree with, whatever you call it--karma or whatever else--there's a lot of that in everything. I grew up on a farm in Iowa, and I really appreciate the farming mentality because you work really hard--and then you let the weather happen. And some years are good and some years are bad. You don't have much responsibility for it. It's what you do, rather than the result, which is important.

[Ken Olsen, p. 224] Success in business is so fragile--human beings are involved, and the market is involved. People who follow somebody else's wisdom without thinking about it will miss these things. Being critical and analyzing issues ahead of time is satisfying. You must have humility if you're trying to figure things out differently from everybody else. But most people don't think at all. They fall in love with phrases. The best assumption to have is that any commonly held belief is wrong.