To measure or not to measure, that is the question…

Most of us are very familiar with the good old management saying that goes: “if it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed”. I have to say that this statement always gives me a chill down my spine. I am not saying that it is not true, but my scientific background reminds me of what is known as the Observer Effect in Physics. So, welcome back to another post in the Physics of Innovation series, where we will speak about measuring.

We can define “measuring” as the act of using some instrument or tool to determine the value of some magnitude, either directly or through its effects into something else. We are all aware of many different measuring instruments, like a measuring tape to measure distance or a thermometer to measure temperature, but we also use (specially in management functions) a number of indicators and ratios to allow us to “measure” a process and understand how we can steer it to improve its performance. Are all these measurement operations “harmless” to the phenomenon being measured? Well, going back to the teachings of Physics, we can say that they are not; that in many cases the act of measurement does influence what you are measuring. This is called the Observer Effect.

Many examples come to mind and depending on the actual sensitivity of the magnitude being measured, the effect of the measurement can be negligible or not. If you use a ruler to measure the size of a box, well, the erosion of the surface can certainly be ignored. But if you need to measure the temperature of a small sample and you use a mercury thermometer, the instrument will absorb (or transfer) some heat from/to the sample in order to reach thermal equilibrium and offer a measurement; depending on that change, the effect would be negligible or not. So depending on the actual process being measured and the fineness of the measurement you need, the use of some instruments would not be recommended. We can think of other “less physical” examples, like measuring the performance of a computer CPU when running your measurement probe in the CPU actually influences the measurement. Or in economics, where measuring some magnitude like stock price, actually influences buying/selling decisions on the market.

By the way, and allow me to get a little more “physical”, we should not confuse the Observer Effect with the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics. If we greatly simplify this principle, the conclusions are similar, not being able to measure what we want, but the Principle deals with the actual quantum properties of wave-like phenomena and we should not simplify it to think it is just an Observer Effect. But allow me to leave the realm and mysteries of the Quantum world for another day.

So, what can we learn or apply from the Observer Effect for our Innovation practice? If the reader remembers a previous post (the three-body problem), we concluded that Innovation can be considered a chaotic process, where small changes in initial conditions can yield big differences in the results, but (and this is the catch) you are not sure which way! What I am trying to say, coming back to measurement, is that the simple act of measuring your innovation process can have an important effect on its outcome, and not always positive.

For example, trying to measure the profitability or the ROI (Return Of Investment) of an innovation effort is something we have to do, specially if we are doing it to improve productivity or sales or whatever, but be aware that depending on how you do it and when you do it, you may be contaminating the actual process. Innovation is seldom a linear process, so measuring your ROI over the first quarter of your novelty being in place, and deciding upon it because you believe it will follow a linear path, may be the worst thing you can do.

I haven’t got the recipe for measuring innovation, if I did I would be writing bestselling books instead of these posts, but I believe no one really has it. My recommendation, and bear with me on this as I am certainly walking on the razor’s edge, would be to “observe and watch” more than to actually barge into the innovation process to “measure” and “report”.

Because as the saying went, we certainly need to understand to manage, but Innovation is like a new born baby, we need to know what is happening when it is crying and we may not have a clue about why. So do measure, but do it carefully. And if he or she is smiling, just let them grow!

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4 comments

  1. Economists refer to the innovation “black box” as a way to admit that we really don´t know what is happening inside the innovation process itself. We only know that there are some inputs and outputs but the process is often hidden. The easiest way to approach this problem is just measuring the outputs and arguing that they stem directly from the inputs available. However we miss the effect from the “black box”, that is the way in which we manage our resources (inputs) in order to get different results from them. What is inside of the “black box”? innovation culture, leadership, new processes, knowledge management, HRM practices, strategy,…. How do we measure the cross-effects of the whole system ? tough work, I would say,…So, that is why, many times, this “observe and watch” approach is more efficient than “measuring and reporting”
    Best wishes Juan Vicente

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    1. Thanks a lot, Juan Vicente. Very interesting concept the black box… also with a Physics counterpart, the radiation of the black body! It’s great for me to receive a comment from an innovation expert like you.

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  2. Absolutely interesting Alvaro. I am one of those convinced on the necessity to measure, but we very seldom think about the implications of it!

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