Albert Einstein allegedly had a sign hanging in his office at Princeton that said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” As next year’s business plans are being finalised, pay close attention to the measures of success. A recent chilling example, from UK healthcare, shows why it is so critical to choose the right metrics.

This month the review into maternity services at Shrewsbury and Telford NHS Trust concluded that many lives had been lost there needlessly, through a host of failings. It said that there had been many missed chances to learn from past errors. And yet, the same trust was previously lauded for its achievements in maternity care.

How could a drive for more patient-centred maternity care lead to more deaths of mothers and babies? It started with a desire to make the process of maternity and childbirth less medicalised. The idea of “natural childbirth” became the gold standard in the UK. Women were encouraged to attempt a natural delivery rather than elect for a caesarean section, or even an epidural.  A reduction in medical interventions followed – over time, the trust’s rates of caesarean deliveries fell to less than half the national average. But it seems that over time, these observed changes were adopted as targets. So women were denied the treatment they needed, because of a competing goal, the reduction of interventions such as caesarean deliveries.

It’s a tragic lesson in how focus can be lost. Moving away from something – excessive medicalisation in this case – towards a patient-centric approach is surely a good thing. But a patient-centric approach would surely be measured in patient satisfaction, and patient outcomes, not targets for medical procedures. Somehow the patient focus was lost along the way, perhaps in the quest for harder measures than simple satisfaction. The wrong metrics, founded on good intentions, shaped by observable data, led to disastrous results.

Some marketers can be so focused on planning activity that metrics are an afterthought. Digital marketers are highly metrics-driven, but even they tend to choose from the metrics palette on their analytics platform.

Metrics matter. We know that what gets measured gets done. But as an end in themselves they can be dangerous. As Warren Buffett, the so-called Sage of Omaha, put it, “Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard.”

So whatever you are planning for 2021, whether professional or personal, start with the end in mind.


More on this topic:

ROI is a false friend to marketers

Getting five star ratings in customer satisfaction? You should be worried

Trains, Enron and the real job of marketers

Thought leadership | December 2020