Is Your Boss Really That Stupid?

For the past 40 years my mother has been on a diet.

She has a weekly ritual.

Every Thursday morning she gets up, visits the bathroom and then, before she has had her customary cup of tea, she weighs herself.

Why does she do this?

Because she knows full well that she is at her lightest on Thursdays, long after the excesses of the previous weekend and just before she starts the warm up for the next one.

She also knows that being judicious with about the timing of her “fluid exchange” will save her the thick end of a pound (454 grammes for those of a metric persuasion) on the scales.

As she once pointed out to me:

“I might as well weigh myself when I am at my lightest.  There is no point in feeling bad about it.”

Of course she is only fooling herself, but she is happy to do so.

Active measurement

The minute people start to measure something they start to change what they are measuring.  Or as Blastland and Dilnot put it in their book The Tiger That Isn’t “measurement is not passive”.

My mother is adept at applying “active measurement techniques”.

It’s not just my mother

Public sector organisations are also very active about the way they measure things:

  • Police forces have a whole host of ways of working out what is a crime and what isn’t.  They have even created an interesting new verb, to de-crime: Change the reporting of a crime to non-criminal.
  • Hospitals are also very adept at moving the boundaries of a casualty department.  Particularly when the time from entering one to leaving one is a hotly contested government statistic.

And it isn’t just the public sector

I have spent many an interesting hour debating:

  • If a customer call really “abandoned” if they only waited 20 seconds.
  • Who was responsible when letters are sent late.
  • Whose budget “project work” should be paid from.

All that management effort invested in active measurement is supremely effective at impressing our bosses when all we are doing is driving our businesses sideways.

Are our bosses really that stupid?

Either they don’t realise “active measurement” is happening, they are having the wool comprehensively pulled over their eyes, and they are truly stupid.  Or they know full well what is going on, in which case they are complicit.

I have rarely met a truly stupid boss.  Have you?

Unfortunately there is a difference between looking good and being good

Active measurement doesn’t work:

  • It doesn’t lead to happy customers
  • It doesn’t lead to happy employees
  • It doesn’t lead to happy voters
  • Ultimately it doesn’t even lead to happy bosses

So if you want to be good, not just look it

  1. Stop making people look bad if the results aren’t where you want them to be.
  2. Start to focus on what you can do to improve the system, not how you can improve the measures.

Of course some bosses aren’t worth having that conversation with.

Which is why I haven’t suggested to my mother that she moves the biscuit tin.

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weigh scales

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Image by Jeremy Fulton


  1. Hi James,
    Great post and advice.

    Seems like a big shift for many companies. If a company wanted to make that shift, where should it start?


    • James Lawther says:

      I suppose Adrian that you can only start with you. Which takes some courage.

      • That’s a great point. How can we ask others to change if we are not willing to change ourselves first. Wasn’t it Gandhi that said….”Be the change that you want to see in the world”…?


  2. Great post James!

    Of course…I do a similar thing to your mother when it comes to my weight…but I do at least try to avoid such things in work! :)

    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for the comment Barry, I’m glad to hear you don’t fool yourself all the time. I guess you would have to be a saint not to fall for a little self delusion every now and again.


  3. Love the analogy, James. This is one of the problems, no doubt, with metrics and measurement. A message that bears repeating … over and over again.

    Annette :-)

  4. Hello James

    I am with you. I started in the finance function which is all about metrics and using metrics to control people, teams, functions and the business. Early on I learned that what gets measured gets gamed. The process that has shown up as being the most wasteful is that of coming up with annual targets and setting the associated budgets.

    Working in Vodafone many years ago on the Customer Experience project an anomaly showed up. Customers were dissatisfied with device delivery yet the device logistics dept were showing something like 98% on time delivery. The device logistics team had rigged what constituted “on time delivery”!

    For my part I am no longer amazed at the stupidity of our thinking when it comes to thinking of the system as a whole. We think in straight lines. We think in silos. And our world does not work that way. So, a payment has to be made for our arrogance. The question is only who is going to pay the price, when and how much the price will be.


    • James Lawther says:

      Maz, as fudging the figures is part of the human condition I am not sure how long it will be until somebody pays the price. More worryingly, if and when it happens I am not entirely sure they will realise the price is being paid.


  5. This post is spot on. Thinking through all the metrics that we use, most all of them are “fudged” in some way or another. Our best [worst!] example is our quality PPM. The only number we report is based on negotiated customer returns. It has absolutely no relationship to how we are actually performing.

    A question above was “so what can we do about it (where should we start)?” I think it is important as Change Agents that we be the voice of reality whenever possible. I try to make sure that as we discuss these figures, I chirp up and make sure we all know that “this is not the real number…”. It makes some people uncomfortable, but I have yet to find someone that actually will disagree and support the bogus datapoint.

  6. Even if your mother’s weight data is skewed, the change from week to week provides useful information. Likewise, even if we skew the metrics we measure in our work, the data can still provide important insights if measured consistently.

    • James Lawther says:

      Tom, I think there is some real validity to your point,

      However I don’t believe my mothers weight loss data is skewed consistently, only when it suits her.

      Thanks very much for your comment


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