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 rigor, we’ve gone from measuring performance to fixating on measuring itself. The result is a tyranny of metrics that threatens the quality of our lives and most important institutions. In this timely and powerful book, Jerry Muller uncovers the damage our obsession with metrics is causing—and shows how we can begin to fix the problem.
Filled with examples from education, medicine, business and finance, government, the police and military, and philanthropy and foreign aid, this brief and accessible book explains why the seemingly irresistible pressure to quantify performance distorts and distracts, whether by encouraging “gaming the stats” or “teaching to the test.” That’s because what can and does get measured is not always worth measuring, may not be what we really want to know, and may draw effort away from the things we care about. Along the way, we learn why paying for measured performance doesn’t work, why surgical scorecards may increase deaths, and much more. But metrics can be good when used as a complement to—rather than a replacement for—judgment based on personal experience, and Muller also gives examples of when metrics have been beneficial.
Complete with a checklist of when and how to use metrics, The Tyranny of Metrics is an essential corrective to a rarely questioned trend that increasingly affects us all.
Awards and Recognition
- Finalist for the 2019 Hayek Prize, The Manhattan Institute
"Economic historian Jerry Muller delivers a riposte to bean counters everywhere with this trenchant study of our fixation with performance metrics."—Barbara Kiser, Nature
"To his credit, Muller isn’t interested only in documenting the ways in which the metric fixation produces unintended consequences. Beyond that, he wants, first, to work out what causes this high level of dysfunction, and second, to identify ways in which metrics might be used more productively."—Stefan Collini, London Review of Books
"For every quantification, there's a way of gaming it. So argues this timely manifesto against measured accountability."—Kirkus Reviews
"Many of us have the vague sense that metrics are leading us astray, stripping away context, devaluing subtle human judgement, and rewarding those who know how to play the system. Muller’s book crisply explains where this fashion came from, why it can be so counterproductive and why we don’t learn. It should be required reading for any manager on the verge of making the Vietnam body count mistake all over again."—Tim Harford, Financial Times
"A short and highly readable account of the way such management systems are undermining important institutions, such as universities, schools, policing, charities and even companies."—Luke Johnson, Sunday Times
"As Muller says ‘anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.’ Too many people appear oblivious to this basic fact of life. A close reading of Muller’s excellent, if somewhat brief, introduction to the pitfalls of quantitative measurement should set them right."—Edward Chancellor, Breakingviews
"There is also ample evidence, expertly summarised in Jerry Muller’s recent book, The Tyranny of Metrics, that metrics can be counter-productive."—The Economist
"Muller . . . says that an over-reliance on metrics can lead us to disproportionately value the things that are easiest to measure. These and the many other criticisms of metric fixation the author offers are well argued and will feel all too familiar to teachers and school leaders alike. Shortly after I agreed to review this title, Ofsted’s chief inspector . . . gave a speech explaining how she had recently read the book and how it was influencing her own thinking. Having now had the chance to read it myself, I think we should take this as a positive sign. My hope is that others involved in school accountability, including politicians, have the chance to consider its core message."—James Bowen, Times Education Supplement
"A timely and important critique of the pervasive tendency to define success in terms of quantifying human performance, accountability and transparency, a trend that has invaded every profession."—Paradigm Explorer
"Jerry Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics mercilessly exposes the downside of the cult of measurement and managerialism."—The Economist
"Muller’s book remains an interesting one: short, unpretentious, scholarly, and full of insights. And it provokes the reader into asking further questions."—Pierre Lemieux, Regulation
"I cannot stress enough how important this book is for all organization studies scholars. If anything, I see it as an act of resistance to the plethora of publications that ‘count’ but are completely uninteresting, unimportant, and unread."—Alexia Panayiotou, Organization
"Jerry Z. Muller’s thought-provoking The Tyranny of Metrics raises old post-positivist arguments on the limits of quantitative knowledge by using new theoretical leverages and applying them to original case studies."—Simone Raudino, European Legacy
"In this clear and compelling book, Jerry Muller shows how our attempts to improve organizational outcomes through quantitative measures have metastasized into a culture of gaming and manipulation. Through carefully researched case studies on education, healthcare, and compensation, The Tyranny of Metrics makes a convincing case that we need to restore judgment and ethical considerations at a time when shallow quantification threatens the integrity of our most important institutions."—Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business School
"Have you ever wondered why universities make the mistake of hiring presidents with little or no experience in higher education, or why, nine times out of ten, these foreign imports fail? Then read Jerry Muller's new book and you will understand such folly as one more instance of an unhappy, massive trend—abandoning the situated judgment of experienced professionals in favor of the supposedly objective judgment promised (but not delivered) by the magic bullet of metrics: standardized measures and huge data banks touted as generating insight and wisdom all by themselves. Muller dismantles this myth in a brisk and no-nonsense prose that has this reader crying ‘yes, yes' at every sentence."—Stanley Fish, author of Winning Arguments and Think Again
"Quantification, once only a tool, has become a cult. I can think of no better deprogrammer than Jerry Muller, whose renowned skills in dissecting political and social doctrines are evident here. The Tyranny of Metrics should be essential reading for managers and the managed alike."—Edward Tenner, author of The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can't Do and Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences
"In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller has brought to life the many ways in which numerical evaluations result in deleterious performance: in our schools, our universities, our hospitals, our military, and our businesses. This book addresses a major problem."—George A. Akerlof, Nobel Prize–winning economist
"The Tyranny of Metrics is an important and accessible book about a growing problem. It comes as close as anything I've read to showing us how to break out of the dysfunctional cycle of measuring, finding out that measuring doesn't get us where we want to go, but then measuring some more."—David Chinitz, School of Public Health, Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School
"Broad in scope and ambition, persuasively argued, and engagingly written, The Tyranny of Metrics is a very compelling book."—Mark Schlesinger, Yale University