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Not everything that counts…

It is said that Keynes, like Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, said more clever things after they died than they did while they were alive. If it’s true or not we don’t know however the headline is from a quote from Einstein stating: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.’

We’re living in a paradigm where what we measure have such an immense effect on people, groups, teams, divisions, companies, societies and the whole world. Almost too often we don’t question why we measure things and we just take it for granted that we shall measure. We just presuppose that we shall do it i.e. it’s almost an unconscious presupposition. But what happens when we forget the intention behind the measure? What happens when we steer organisations just on figures? What happens when we without noticing – measure means instead of goals? What happens when the search for measurements become the only thing of importance?

One very important measure is unemployment. One of the most important figures that affect a whole world as soon as the latest figures are published. Who is responsible for the importance we put on the unemployment figures?

Once again it’s probably John Maynard Keynes. Keynes was concerned with unemployment and one aim he had was to bring the levels of unemployment down. He was worried about it due to the fact that he had seen societies been destroyed when the levels had been too high especially after the crash in 1929. He also thought it might lead to radical and extreme politics. On the other hand Friedrich von Hayek – today still the economist combatant to Keynes – thought that rapid inflation was the curse. Two different viewpoints (presuppositions) that had led to different kinds of actions for almost a century and influenced governments around the world – especially at present times. Nicholas Wapshott describes it beautifully in these interviews from the Institute for New Economic Thinking. As Mr Wapshott recounts ‘…Keynes reason or common sense was that if the private sector can’t employ people then the public sector have to…’ in order to avoid unemployment. As you can see and hopefully recognise a statement still in the news.

But if we scrutinise unemployment we can see that when we measure it we look at the number of people in the range of 15-74 years of age that don’t have a full time employment. It doesn’t say anything regarding how the population look like. We might actually have a lot of people younger than 15 year and older than 74 year that we have to provide for. It all emanates from Keynes’ fear of people not working.

What happens if we change mindset and look at how many who really is working, i.e. contributing to the wealth of the nation? The figure is called the level of employment (LoE) and shows the number of employable workers between 15-64 years of age who are employed as a percentage of the total population in that age. A different starting point showing another dimension than just measuring unemployment.

To measure things is important and it’s more important to really think of why do we measure this? It’s very easy to measure things and to go down into pieces and sub-pieces of the measurement, and all of a sudden forget what the original overall headline was. Without noticing one are directed by the figures…or expressed in another way; by chunking down you might extract one thing and think it’s valid for a whole world.

So be aware of what you measure and why, cause sooner or later the measurements will direct you, and please remember the quotation: ‘Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted counts.’

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