Overpowered Metrics Eat Underspecified Goals

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Like Alice, most organizations, and most people, have goals that haven’t been articulated clearly enough. I call these rough ideas “underspecified goals” — we only sort-of know what we want. That’s normal for any complex process; when writing, my ideas coalesce only once they become more concrete. Novelists sometimes say that the story got away from them, when the characters behaviors don’t lead to the outcome the author had initially imagined. This can lead to slight narrative flexations, or a full out revolt of the characters.

This happens outside of writing as well, and specifically, in organizations. But it isn’t always a handicap. An explanation of why and how it happens is required to know when this underspecification is benign, or even useful, and when it’s harmful. And that understanding, in turn, will lead us to some conclusions about how, in the latter case, we can mitigate the problem or fix it completely.

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