Metrics Shmetrics!

📖 3 minute read

Metrics! Schmetrics! Are we afraid of metrics?

The Austin Software Process Improvement Network meeting I attended tonight was a roundtable on metrics. As I was listening to the panelists explain their experience and ideas about measurement, it occurred to me that most people harbor some basic fears people have about measurement. In this article you'll read about the three basic fears that I think people have and you'll find some ideas for dealing with those fears. In order to measure anything at all, I suggest that we have to overcome these three nagging fears:

  1. Fear of Self: I don't want to measure anything because I don't want to know how bad/good the situation is, since I intuitively know that it is bad/good.
  2. Fear of Others: I don't want to measure because I don't want you to know how bad/good the situation is, and it is none of your business anyway.
  3. Fear of Change: I just like what I am doing--even if it is not very effective--and I don't want to measure anything, because if I do, I might have to change what I am doing as a result.

1. Fear of Self

This fear could be coined the AA Syndrome (Alcoholics Anonymous). As long as I don't own up to the fact that some problems exist, I don't have to deal with it. I heard this problem expressed by somebody this way: "You cannot get one to solve a problem that one doesn't have."

This fear is possibly the hardest to deal with. There is not much you can do about this fear in the short term. It is one of those fears that if it is present in the person, then at best you can get them to change their mind about it in the long term.

The people that have the internal drive to continually improve generally know how to overcome this fear. They look at the measurements that they get as opportunities to improve themselves and their personal and professional lives. The people that have the desire to better themselves tend to be self-disciplined. They posses an inner drive that far surpasses any leverage that you may have over their behavior. I feel like this is a quality that you have to look for when you hire.

2. Fear of Others

Most of us are afraid of being measured. Why? One of the reasons is that we have been measured, tested, and evaluated by others so many times--often in less than useful ways--that over the years we came to trust the people doing the measurement less and less.

3. Fear of Change

To compound the problem, we are afraid of metrics even if we do the measurement. We have a hard time owning up to the fact that we ourselves are the primary reason why ............ (substitute your favorite problem here). This problem may lie at the heart of many of our other problems. As Peter Senge puts it in The Fifth Discipline, we have a difficult time learning when the cause and effect are separated in time and/or space. Getting some metrics is a key element of making that all-too-important connection relating the cause to the effect. While teaching the Personal Software Process class I noticed this pattern over and over again.

It is difficult to grasp the relative value of the things we do and their contribution to the overall results that we are trying to achieve. Let's take the first example from software development: when software developers take the Personal Software Process class they have a certain belief about what works and what doesn't, and what is the cost of a certain development activity. As soon as they start to measure what they do, the world changes... They realize that some of the practices they thought are wasteful turn out to be very productive, while other practices don't contribute nearly enough to the overall results.

How can we overcome our metrics fears?

Can any metrics initiative overcome any or all of these fears? I don't know. I would say that if it doesn't overcome some of these fears, then it will be doomed. While I cannot give you a recipe for success, at least you know three problems that will popup and you can prepare to deal with them. It's a start.

What is your metrics story? I’d like to hear it.


  • "A metric is a quantifiable measurement of a product or process." --Linda Shafer
  • "Quantities are measurements of qualities." --Paul Kirchner