Unintended Consequences - How a 5 year old can manipulate a metric when it becomes a target.

| Chris Barrows | Team Articles

Goodhart’s Law of Unintended Consequences.  If you’re a parent, you’ve likely seen it in action. 

This is how it plays out at my kitchen table...

Imagine dinner with chicken, green beans and rice.  You’re proud of the spread you’ve provided.  It’s a nice, healthy and hearty meal.  Your child meanders through the dining process, 20 minutes go by and they are getting squirmy ready to be done.  

You become a little sad as you know they not only don’t appreciate what you cooked, but you likely will not eat nearly as much as you’d like.  You can see the wheels spinning in their heads as you see them look at you, push some food around, look at you again. You can feel where this is going:  negotiation.

Jan 5yrOld 600x400

They innocently ask if they can be finished and you let them know just a few more bites.  Child follows up, “how many?”.  You look at their plate, chicken gone, but they could do some work on the green beans.  You respond “2 more bites”.  They smile, and take 2 bites. Each bite consists of exactly 1 green bean. I lose. They win.

Those bites were an unintended consequence of the “goal” I set.  

When a measure becomes a target, it stops being a good measure.  The proper measure should have been to set the expectation of a clean plate or separated out what needed to be eaten. 

Too often we set goals not realizing what can be manipulated or neglected in pursuit of those goals.  Very few pursuits can be defined by a single metric. When goal setting, be sure to use a comprehensive series of metrics that allows you to set expectations.  As you can see, even a 5 year old can find a way to manipulate single metric measures of success.






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