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60. When a metric becomes a target, we start to game it

I think it was our chairman of the company board, Anders Ehlers, who said this to me, but I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure it’s been said in more eloquent terms somewhere before, but here you’re getting it from me.

Measuring stuff is great. It’s cool to know how many visitors your website has, how much you need to run to lose a kilo or what number of correct answers are required to get a passing grade.

But…

Once we get target numbers, we start gaming them. We start thinking in artificial terms, and it is crazy. Human, but crazy. And it doesn’t even have to be malevolent. It just happens.

Top writer, yes please!

Take Medium’s new “Top writer” system. I got a mail telling me that I was one of Medium’s Top 50 writers in the tags “Creativity” and “Leadership”. Cool! I felt surprised, humbled and motivated. I may just be a random guy writing about stuff I find interesting, but still. Mostly I write about larp, which isn’t important enough as a tag to have its own Top 50 (yet). But also other stuff.

Stuff like creativity and leadership.

This means that I’ve had a couple of thoughts about my new-found status as somebody who (apparently) writes something that (some) people read.

“Wow, being a Top Writer is nice. I feel people will listen more when they see that in my profile. I’ll work to keep that badge!”

“Hey, it’s also providing me with new followers. Wow! Very motivational. Even more reason to stay within the Top 50.”

“Accomplishment feels great. Knowing that I am one of the top writers in two fields that matter to me feels great. I know Medium has a limited pool of writers, but being in the Top 50 still warms my heart and gives me a confidence boost. A third good reason to strive to stay there.”

So far, so good.

Enter the gaming-the-system thoughts

And that’s where it starts to get dicey. Because not only did I think “This motivates me to write more.” (which I see as a good thing). My brain immediately started spinning with strategies.

“If I write a blog post about Creativity and/or Leadership, there’s a better chance I’ll stay in the Top 50.” -> Suddenly I’m not (only) writing about what I find interesting, but thinking actively about how to fit into these two categories, so I can keep my status.

“Maybe I should just repost what someone else wrote somewhere else, and reskin it slightly.” -> It won’t be adding anyhing new to the discourse, but it’ll boost my chances of staying in the Top 50.

“Normally I share my posts on my facebook wall. If I shared them somewhere else, I’d get more readers, and have a better chance of retaining my top spot.” -> The reason for spreading the word shifts from intrinsic to external motivation.

“How do I find out how this works, so I know if I’m #38 or #48?” -> Obviously, since all 50 of us are ranked equally as “top writers”, I don’t have to stress about it as long as I’m not near the bottom, and close to “removal”.

All this sort of thinking is natural and not necessarily evil or even small-minded. But I don’t think it leads to better writing from me. I am also painfully aware that I am horribly overthinking this, and that in reality I probably won’t be considering all this that much when I write.

When I got the mail and checked up on the changes, though, all these thoughts went through my head.

It’s much worse in other places

My Medium career and my musings on it aren’t important enough to seriously mess things up for anyone. But there are many places where things get tricky when metrics become targets. Sales people with sales goals face this at every turn.

Customer service personnel know what I’m talking about as well. We can track “customers serviced pr hour”, but if we don’t remember to add “satisfied”, it’s a very bad idea to aim for as many as possible!

In the digital age, it’s easy to fall in love with metrics. It can be fascinating to find out how many people open your newsletter, spend time on your website or share your facebook posts. Or read your Medium stories.

But it’s also a slippery slope, and we need to keep our eyes open. Because we will try to manipulate ourselves into manipulating numbers. Especially when they become targets.

If I got paid 100€ for every Medium post I had that had more than 1.000 views, for instance, I’d write more controversial stuff (which has shown to give me more views). And even if I found out that I could get 2.000 views by polishing my writing and spending more time, I probably wouldn’t, since all I “needed” was 1.000.

It’s hard to not be swayed by metrics and to make some of them into targets. But as long as we remember that it’s also human to min/max (a term I know from the RPG world), we’re at least reminding ourselves that it’s risky.

And you can bet that I tagged this post both “Creativity” and “Leadership” and felt it was reasonable to do so. But would I have written it if it hadn’t helped my chances of keeping my coveted position(s) as a top writer?

Hard to say.

If you like my writing, and want to throw money at me to write more, you can do exactly that, using Patreon.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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