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The Tyranny of Metrics

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  926 ratings  ·  130 reviews
How the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government

Today, organizations of all kinds are ruled by the belief that the path to success is quantifying human performance, publicizing the results, and dividing up the rewards based on the numbers. But in our zeal to instill the evaluation process with scientific r
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published February 6th 2018 by Princeton University Press (first published 2017)
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Nov 06, 2018 rated it did not like it
Ayn Rand Lives

This is an important book about an important subject. It’s primary importance lies in the fact that it is completely wrong about what’s at issue and how to fix it. It is so wrong that it makes the case for its antithesis. This too is wrong, if only slightly less 0bviously so.

Here’s the thesis: “We live in the age of measured accountability, of reward for measured performance, and belief in the virtues of publicizing those metrics through ‘transparency.’ But the identification of ac
Jan Rice
May 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
As I was reading the midsection of this book, I was thinking it was a chore--where "chore" means taking some notes--but an absolutely necessary one, given the revelatory nature. Then, the ending hit me with an emotional wallop. That could not have happened if I hadn't read on through the material.

The wallop was this: we have made an idol out of transparency. And this: our whole society is like a bad marriage. We don't know how to fix it, but we can't just divorce everybody.

Before I read this boo
Mal Warwick
Apr 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I was not surprised by historian Jerry Z. Muller's comments about "metric fixation" in his illuminating new book, The Tyranny of Metrics.

Some years ago the chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company remarked to me that nobody, not even Jack Welch, the then-idolized leader of General Electric, could possibly turn in solid revenue and profit increases steadily, quarter-after-quarter, year-after-year, through ups and downs in the market. It was clear to him that somebody was cooking the books at GE.
Tom Mackay
Jul 25, 2018 rated it it was ok
A sustained critique of what Muller calls "metric fixation" is necessary and long-overdue. Muller captures how the overuse and dependency on metrics and quantification, particularly for evaluating performance, is hollowing out and damaging key social, cultural, political, commercial, and philanthropic institutions. Spelling this out in a succinct and accessible manner for an audience broader than academia is vital. For that, Muller should be commended.

However, the book is not as hard-hitting as
David Wineberg
Jan 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
Too many metrics are killing productivity

During the great famine in China, local officials yanked plants out of the ground and raced ahead of Mao’s itinerary to plant them at his next stop, thus fooling the chairman into thinking bumper crops were everywhere. They kept their jobs and their heads, but as a result, Mao declared there was no famine and refused to release government stores of rice to the starving. Fifty million died. This is the poster child for metrics.

The Tyranny of Metrics is an
May 23, 2018 rated it liked it
It's good for what it is and I think it's right, but there is nothing new here. Read Cathy O'Neills Weapons of Math Destruction, which is better and more interesting. ...more
Matt Chester
Apr 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed Muller's 'The Tyranny of Metrics,' and felt it delivered exactly the type of read I thought it would. In a world that is becoming more digitized and people are pushing for increased transparency, Muller writes about instances where it appears we've become too reliant on blindly following the data behind metrics without understanding the harm that may come.

To be clear, Muller is not against metrics but he lays out very good arguments for why they may not always be appropriate, h
May 26, 2018 rated it liked it
The Tyranny of Metrics is a clear expression of mainly the deleterious effects of using metrics in the workplace - where counting shouldn't be counted on.

"Dan Cable and Freek Vermeulen of the London Business School recall many of the problems we have explored: the depressive effect of performance pay on creativity; the propensity to cook the books; the inevitable imperfections of the measurement instruments; the difficulty of defining long-term performance; and the tendency for extrinsic motivat
Peter Geyer
The title of this book suggests that it could be a polemic of sorts against measurement, more specifically "metrics" – something dismissed early in the piece by the author. Muller presents the idea, backed up by research and case studies, that the use of metrics to guide management of everything from management to education, the military to charities often achieves the opposite of its stated aim.

He begins with his own experience as a dean in a university faculty and the growing pressures to just
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
4 stars, but one more for novelty. At times conservative and at times liberal, a hard look at what the obsession with metrics is doing to modern life, across education, business, military, government, foreign aid, and more. The author makes a highly persuasive case using succinct arguments to deconstruct what the downsides are to the obsession with numbers. And it’s quite alarming.
Sep 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
"The point isn't to survey the field but to highlight a few case studies." Would have been cooler if metrics were brought down with really solid stats, but "judgement" wielded by the author was interesting too. ...more
Jun 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Oh, the metrics you will use! Mueller pointed out the problems of over-using metrics in society, especially when it is used for compensation purposes, and when assigned top-down without consultation with people who are actually involved in the work.

1. What is measurable may not be important, and what is important may not be measurable.
2. Metrics focus people’s attention to what is measured, to the neglect of everything that is not.
3. Metrics used for internal reporting is generally fine, but
Lorenzo Barberis Canonico
Oct 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I would consider myself fairly bullish on metrics, tracking and organization in general, so I took the time to listen to Muller’s counter-argument. Most of it boils down to Goodheart’s Law ("When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”). What really surprised me and I deeply appreciated was his final section arguing against transparency, which is very much a core value I strongly believe in. He makes a very persuasive case of the vital role privacy makes in our lives, as well ...more
Mar 29, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
If your work is anything like mine, the bosses have become acolytes of metrics, the pseudo-science of numerically evaluating everything that everyone does as a way of tracking and improving service. On the surface, this makes a great deal of sense. How can you know that you have employed a mediocre teacher or an incompetent nurse without some data to demonstrate their ineffectiveness? How can you compare one hospital or college with another without knowing what their outcomes are? But, as anyone ...more
Feb 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Metrics is a word that can convey many feelings and emotions. It can be the means of beneficial analysis and quantification, as well as being something one is a slave to, recording unrealistic or unrequired data ‘just because’. For many, it is no longer just measuring the performance of something but the measurement of measuring itself that is in focus in the real world.

This book considers, therefore, the real tyranny of metrics and the obsession that many hold with this management elixir and se
Apr 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, economics
The Tyranny of Metrics (2018) by Jerry Z Muller is an interesting look at problems caused by misusing metrics. It's impressively short and Muller has read widely and pondered the problems caused by over relying on poor metrics. 

Muller outlines why metrics have been used. It looks at increasing costs and people wanting, wisely, to improve productivity. Metrics were also seen as a way of resolving the principal / agent problem. They were also seen as a way of doing something objective to assess ou
Aug 31, 2018 rated it liked it
Very good introduction to some of the flaws of metrics. If you are already familiar with some of the literature - or are wary of metrics - this probably isn’t new information, but it is all put together and summarized very nicely. I wished he had engaged with the anthropology and STS work on this topic.
Jul 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Muller explains the dangers of trusting metrics for anything, with examples from government, business and charities. It’s a good reminder of what could go wrong, and shows that judgment based on knowledge and experience trumps judgment based on metrics.
May 01, 2019 rated it it was ok
found it difficult to focus on.

metrics can be gamed and once known and the basis for preferential treatment most certainly will be.
Chelsea Lawson
May 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'm extremely glad I read this book, despite having read the quite similar (and also good) book, Weapons of Math Destruction. As a data scientist and government consultant who specializes in performance management, I am certainly guilty of the metric fixation discussed. Indeed, even when I think I am self-aware and push to incorporate qualitative information, etc, it seems it still perpetuates the problem.

The main point that I took away from the Tyranny of Metrics is that we need to trust and e
Kevin B.
Sep 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
In the Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller presents a clear case against the current, and growing, over-reliance on KPIs and other performance metrics for assessing people's and organizations' work. One of the more common admonitions in AI is to be careful what you ask for, or, as Russell & Norvig put it in their incredibly popular textbook on AI, "what you ask for is what you get." If your institutions set KPIs rewarding citations, for example, then you're likely to end up with illicit citation ri ...more
Jun 19, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: business
Metrics are becoming a bigger part of my working life these days, and I was excited for a deeper dive into an epistemological critique. This book did an ok job at that, covering a lot of the downsides of metric fixation that becomes obvious to anyone working with them. Also appreciated the discussion of transparency, as it is a common call in all sorts of reform. Not always a good thing. Book overall struggled to offer any new, ground-breaking analysis, instead spending a lot of time going throu ...more
The topic is important. It is addressed rather well and covers pretty much what everyone working on those sectors has experienced. But this book could also have been written in the 1980s. There are a lot of books written in the same critical vein that take into account the rise of algorithms as part of the same processes (see Cathy O'Neill, obviously, but others as well).

But again, those of us who have experienced those developments will appreciate their treatment here.
Nov 04, 2018 rated it liked it
The book has some interesting case studies on the misuse of metrics, but the entire argument starts to feel fairly belabored. At the end there's a chapter that's tacked on, meant to inform us on how we can use metrics in an effective way. It lacked depth and I was left wanting a bit more guidance (you'll want the guidance, after feeling that tracking any metric will lead to your or your business' untimely demise). ...more
Ryan Lindsey
Apr 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Death to Changepoint!

This book is dry, for sure, but plenty informative and rich with potent examples of how a weird fixation with metrics has invaded the public and private sphere, in some creepy desire to quantify everything at the expense of the unquantifiable.
Peter Håkansson
Apr 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very interesting book about the overreliance of metrics and how it's misused by many organizations. ...more
Jan 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Good Point of view, but the tone is very negative.
Conclusion is good enough to read, which also has adequate examples to understand the book.
Marc Gerstein
Oct 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
An incredibly important book that does much to illuminate many of the major and often under-understood dysfunctions of modern life.

We live, today, in a world in which measurement, goals, data, tracking, etc. dominate more and more facets of life, from the traditional (counting profits and losses) to areas further and further afield than what one thought would be amenable to this sort of thing (doctor and patient, sports, etc.). The ideas were good, often noble. But not everything that sounds go
Oct 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This book discusses the pitfalls of metric fixation/obsession
Erik Th
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great read! Except the part on the explosion on education (and of BAs), which is a bit too American and might also miss that more educated people does not just mean decrease in salaries for qualifications, but actually strengthen a society.
Central point is how throughput qualities become output.
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Jerry Z. Muller is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

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Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” So, this January, as we celebrate Martin Luther King...
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“just as Soviet managers responded by producing shoddy goods that met the numerical targets set by their overlords, so do schools, police forces, and businesses find ways of fulfilling quotas with shoddy goods of their own:” 1 likes
“Accountability ought to mean being held responsible for one’s actions. But by a sort of linguistic sleight of hand, accountability has come to mean demonstrating success through standardized measurement, as if only that which can be counted really counts.” 1 likes
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