What doesn’t get measured… doesn’t exist?

Many of us have heard the saying “What gets measured, gets managed”. A simple, yet powerful thought. With a simple corollary – what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get managed.

But last week I heard an interesting anecdote that drove home the power of measurement. In reality, the corollary is far more extreme. In the eyes of the person responsible, what doesn’t get measured… doesn’t really exist.

 

But before we get into that, let’s take a second look at Peter Drucker’s statement.

What gets measured gets managed - Peter Drucker

In just five words, he captures an overwhelming amount of insight. On human behavior, cognitive biases, the power of incentives, and the strength of a goal-driven approach.

If you want something done, measure it. If there’s an objective number representing the outcome of your actions, you (or your team or partner) will automatically work towards improving it. If you’re assessing something subjectively (or not at all), then progress will never happen.

 

We see scores of examples of this, across our personal and professional lives:

A. Choose an objective metric

  1. If you need to exercise more, then don’t just tell yourself to do that every day. Track your activities. A guy I know walks up and down his office building five times every day, just so he can hit the step goal on his Fitbit.
  2. If you want to increase user engagement on your app, look at your Daily Active Users or Monthly Active Users metrics. Run experiments to increase them. Don’t directly start integrating fun-and-games mechanics without an objective goal.

 

B. Choose the right metric

  1. If you want to lose weight, don’t just count calories. Instead, count the amount of simple carbs you’re eating. [Aside: this is an excellent layman’s book on the subject].
  2. If you want your salespeople to increase sales, don’t measure the daily hours they clock. Count the amount of sales they make. Else, you’ll have diligent workers… who use Facebook 8 hours a day (9-5, on the clock).

As they say, “track it till you crack it” (it rhymes, so it must be true).

What doesn't get measured

But I heard a surprising story last week about Indian broadcast media. It underlined the power of the measure, or in business jargon, the Key Performance Indicator (KPI). It showed how, when marketers can’t measure their impact on a market, they all pretend it doesn’t exist. Even though they know full well that the market is substantial.

 

First, some quick background on the Indian broadcast market.

Traditional audience measurement was flawed

Till recently, TV broadcasters and advertisers in India measured impact of TV programming using an agency called TAM. TAM had special set-top boxes installed in 20K households across India, which tracked data on TV watching habits.

Using this, TAM could tell broadcasters how many people, in which cities, were watching which show. Broadcasters were incentivized to produce content that generated high TAM scores, so they could show this data to advertisers and demand hefty ad rates.

It was a useful KPI, aligning incentives all round. Except for a tiny problem – TAM’s sample was urban-centric. In a market where the rural populace forms a sizeable proportion of TV watchers.

 

Broadcasters recognized this problem, and fixed it

Since TAM placed disproportionate importance on urban TV viewing, it was clearly unrepresentative. And the powers-that-be knew that. So, in the last two years, the industry created an alternative – the Broadcast Audience Research Council, or BARC.

BARC looks at a much larger sample, including a sizeable rural proportion. The system rolled out just recently, with an objective of giving a clearer picture to broadcasters and advertisers.

 

Instantly, broadcasters started generating new, “rural-focused”, content

Here’s where it gets interesting.

As BARC launched, more and more shows with supernatural elements started appearing on TV. Even existing shows, whether staid family dramas or comedies, started having occult “tracks”. This is what happened in 2015:

  1. New shows were launched, like Darr Sabko Lagta Hai (“Everyone gets scared”), Naagin (rough translation: “serpent woman”), etc. In fact, Naagin was one of FOUR new shows about serpent-women!
  2. Many ongoing shows started introducing supernatural elements. Not only daily soaps (or saas-bahu shows as we call them in India), but also comedies.

 

Why did this happen? The reasoning goes – ghosts, serpent-people and others are integral parts of age-old Indian folklore. These beliefs are still a major part of rural lives. Hence we’ve introduced them to create a better connect with the new rural audience.

Disregard the blatant stereotyping for now (we’ll come back to it later). Assuming that this is what the rural audience wants, the logic makes eminent sense.

 

Except for one trivial detail.

The rural market is not new!

It has existed for some time. The 2011 Census showed that the no. of rural households with TVs were as many as urban. A major satellite TV company, Dish TV, said in 2013 that 50% of its connections were in rural areas.

Why then was television content urban-focused? Why were there no shows targeting the rural populace?

 

Because rural wasn’t measured.

The only number available was the urban-focused TAM, which was out of step with reality. And producers of TV shows, in full knowledge of this fact, nevertheless used it. There was no other number, so they followed this one. Single-minded and unswerving, like mice following the Pied Piper.

A classic example of availability bias.

What does this mean for us? We need to be more careful than ever in choosing our KPI – the True North that we set our sails by.

If we don’t choose the right metric (or worse, choose the wrong one), the outcomes will be the antithesis of our objectives. No matter how well-meaning we or our colleagues are.

 

Coming back to our rural stereotype, we’ll find out how true it is in the coming months. If it isn’t, expect the broadcasters to nimbly eliminate the black magic tracks from their shows. It will be managed adeptly. After all, it’s getting measured now.


PS. I couldn’t help but see the link to quantum mechanics. At sub-atomic scales, things don’t exist until they are measured.

PPS. And in this article that first seems to be about politics, Scott Adams explains why this means our reality is probably a computer simulation.

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