Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
— Nursery Rhyme: Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing;
Wasn’t that a dainty dish,
To set before the king?
The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
— Nursery Rhyme: Sing a Song of Sixpence
This may be a side effect of middle age, simultaneously reflecting back on youth and looking futurewards to an inevitable decline after many more years (hopefully) of play and endeavour. It may be a symptom of stubbornness and mild rebellion. Either way, I find myself increasingly drawn to loose frameworks over specificity in many different contexts. More and more, I find myself developing an aversion to shackles, constraints, policies, processes and all kinds of measurement, however well intended they may be. Lying in bed on holiday, for example, I was forced to hear the passing of each hour marked through the tyranny of church bells. These chimed on the hour and again three minutes later – midnight was torture, one o’clock somewhat more tolerable.
There are many things I used to do that I have now stopped doing. I no longer wear a watch, for example, relying instead on all the smart devices that surround me. I have deleted and stopped recording all the statistics from my bike rides, the trusty Garmin computer that adorns my road bike now serving primarily as a navigational aid and, yes, a clock. In fact, after an initial dabble, I find myself resistant to the notion of the quantified self. There was something in Dave Egger’s novel, The Circle, that spoke to my misgivings. I had already stopped using a Wii Fit, having derived some benefit from it early on, but maintaining a healthy scepticism (validated by a medical professional) about its reliance on BMI measurements. I then tried and soon stopped using a Fitbit; something that friends and family had likened to a prisoner’s electronic tagging device.
The benefits of exercise are undeniable. I would never want to challenge those. My problem is with control and choice, with data obsession, and the tendency to value quantity over quality. A bike ride will put a smile on my face not because of the number of miles covered, nor the speed sustained, but because of the opportunity to escape into nature, to sense the countryside not only through my eyes but via my nostrils, lungs, ears, thighs, skin and mouth too. Also for the opportunity to move at the pace I choose, contemplative or hurtling, exercising both body and mind. I have said it before: sitting astride a bike is where I do some of my best thinking. It is a seat of creativity.
Ever since my early teens, my morning ritual has involved the preparation of a coffee. This has increased in strength as I have myself aged, reflecting either a higher tolerance for the caffeine drug, shifting tastes or, more likely, a combination of the two. Regardless, this routine is repeated a number of times through the day. In the past, coffee grains were measured out precisely. Now I just tip the bag with a best guesstimate, relying on my vision and subsequently my tastebuds. The coffee is never too weak. In seeking out a quality experience, I have also found myself shifting to a supermarket’s own-brand French Roast. I like Illy but it is perhaps a little too weak and smooth for me. Monmouth Coffee is an occasional treat, but the price differential with no obvious gain in quality prevents a wholesale conversion.
I would not want to give the impression that numbers and measurement do not matter at all. Clearly, in the right context, they do. But as I have suggested before, the collection of such data in a workplace context has to serve a purpose that is linked to continuous improvement and/or decision making. Meaningless data collection is inefficient and ineffective, serving to create roles that should have no place in the modern organisation. If the management of an office is wholly dependent on a spreadsheet, then I want no part of it.
I am far more interested in quality. The quality of work. The quality of relationships. The quality of services both given and received. Often I find it difficult to attach a numeric value to this. If a colleague needs to work three hours a day over five days to produce a better quality version of what another colleague could produce in a single working day, I know which one I would prefer to ask to do the job. One consultant may take one hour, applying their extensive knowledge and experience, to find a solution that will add long-term value to my company. They may charge £30,000 for that solution. Another consultancy may, estimate two weeks’ work, charge £20,000, and disappear into a haze of inadequacy. I know which I am likely to contract with, which I am more likely to trust, and which I will be partnering with again in the future.
So as a countermeasure to the quantified self, I am advocating the qualified self too.
Eventually everyone realizes that the metric, which was good for a time, is now being gamed. Employees go so far out of their way to score well on the metric that it has negative effects on the real quality of what the company makes, something people recognize intuitively. And as is the way of things, the number-centric leader who created the original KPI decides the solution is to create more, and more precise, KPIs. More are added, which might help at first, but soon the same pattern repeats and the problem is amplified.
— Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants
Many of the rules that people find onerous and bureaucratic were put in place to deal with real abuses, problems, or inconsistencies or as a way of managing complex environments. But while each rule may have been instituted for good reason, after a while a thicket of rules develops that may not make sense in the aggregate. The danger is that your company becomes overwhelmed by well-intended rules that only accomplish one thing: draining the creative impulse.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.
Human beings are motivated by purpose, autonomy and a drive towards mastery. Accomplished leaders create an environment in which their people can develop their skills, their knowledge and their character. This leads to a learning environment and a culture of curiosity, innovation and continuous improvement.
— James Kerr, Legacy