Meaningful Metrics — Quotidian — 004

(Transcript of video originally posted 04 Jan 2021)

Welcome back to the quotidian reports from me! Way back in 1985, a “superhit” movie hit the theatres. Its name was “Mudhal Mariyaadhai” — First Respect or Priority Respect. Shivaji Ganesan, Radha, a beautiful love story — between an old man and a very young girl. A young girl who would have entered the village as a derelict from the neighbouring village. A very interesting story. An award-winning story. This bagged national awards on multiple categories. I want to talk to you about an interesting scene that features in this movie.

A tree. A large boulder at the foot of the tree. The girl and the man having an interesting conversation there. The hero wants to convince the girl that he is still strong and vivacious, even though he may appear old. It is almost as if Shivaji wants to marry the girl, playfully, … and the girl, for fun, taunts him with a challenge — Demonstrate your virility by lifting this boulder! I will marry you right away! From that day on, every day, on his way back from his work in the field, Shivaji tries his hand at lifting the stone… fails over and over again, until… one day… he succeeds. It is an interesting side story to a beautiful emotional “blockbuster” movie, actually. While researching about this video, I came to know that there is, indeed, a real and prevalent practice like this, even today, in rural South India. In remote villages near Pudukkottai and Madurai, the boys are tempted and taunted by the girls, challenged to lift stone spheres like the one shown. It is called the “Ilavattakkal”. Like the challenge to control and make the bull submissive in “Jallikkattu”, this seems to be a “Veera Vilaiyaattu” (Brave Man’s Adventure) in Tamil lore. A time-worn tradition.

The reason we went on this historic analysis? I wanted to explain Goodhart’s Law to you. It says, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”.

If there is a measure, and we start obsessing about a specific measure as a target, it is no longer a good measure. This is because the participants will start focusing on the wrong metric. For example, assume you are in a nail-manufacturing factory… If you are told that you would be evaluated on the number of nails you manufacture per day, you will probably end up manufacturing thousands of minuscule nails — utterly useless! At the same time, if you are told that you would be evaluated on the weight of the nails you manufacture per day, you will swing to the other extreme and perhaps fashion huge nails the size of the ones used in the Titanic! Three humongous nails — again useless — but matching the requirement of maximum weight!

So, it is very important what you measure, what you set as a target…

Where is it important? Take a school for instance. If you set artificial targets like X marks in Y subject, schools will deteriorate into glorified tuition centres. Previous year question papers will be in high demand. Just think about it. Is that good education? The cause? Goodhart’s Law! You are setting something as the target, and the people are focusing on the target. And people are forgetting the philosophy behind the target.

Take a job interview for instance. To apply for jobs in Microsoft and Google, they sell books now! “How to crack the Google Coding Interview” — claims one book. Is that the right approach?

If you were to attend an interview at some of these companies, they would disconnect the internet connection, set a countdown clock, perhaps even dangle a Damoclean sword above your head, and challenge you to solve problems! Is that the right approach?? Is that even remotely related to how you are going to do your day-to-day-work if you get selected at this company? Shouldn’t the ideal interview be a genuine high-fidelity reproduction of the scenario you would face on a typical day instead? And see how you behave, how you collaborate with others in your attempt to resolve the situation?

Goodhart’s Law again…

Take management itself. I have called it 1.0 because, this is the management styles of yore that I am talking about. How would they manage customer service representatives, for example? The manager sidles up and declares, “I am going to improve productivity. I have noticed that people handle only 25 calls every day. I am going to boost it up to 40 calls a day. He sets the target. And, guess what? The calls end up being 45 calls a day. Everybody is thrilled. But, that’s when the manager’s manager comes along, and notices… that the customer service representatives are in such a hurry to move on to the next call that they don’t even have time for a customary thank you, and a warm good bye, before moving on. And, who’s the loser in this whole engagement? The customer. And hence, the business. Customer delight takes the brunt of this well-intended-exercise gone bad.

So, setting the goal correctly is ninety percent of all kinds of productivity-management. I think we all should internalise this very well, before heading out to setting goals and managing people.

I have a few other interesting things to share about this “Mudhal Mariyaadhai” movie. Just about this scene that we saw a while ago… So, this is a “To Be Continued” kinda episode. See you tomorrow!

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​Welcome to Quotidians — a humble attempt to bring a smile to your face… as I connect the commonplace everyday nuggets into meaningfully connected insights.

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Rajendran Dandapani

Rajendran Dandapani

Business Solutions Evangelist at Zoho Corp. President at The Zoho Schools Of Learning.

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