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When the use of metrics goes awry

In the field of software quality, we rely extensively on a series of quantitative metrics to inform us of trends and performance. We need to be keenly aware that the very instant we set a target value for a metric, we are driving behaviors of the people we charge with achieving the target value. Through it all, leaders need to ensure everybody stays focused on what's best for our business and for our customers; and that excessive pressure to achieve those metrics targets don't interfere with that focus.

Here's a real story from the world outside IBM, where the pressure to achieve metrics targets allegedly caused a Police Force in Brooklyn (NY) to bend the rules and violate rights of the people they were supposed to protect. Listen to "Act Two" within this segment of the radio show "This American Life". The story fills roughly the last 41 minutes of the 59 minute segment, so fast forward to time stamp ~18 mins. Police Officer Adrian Schoolcraft documented extensive cases of focusing on metrics over mission. He is now involved in a law suit against the Police Force. This is a chilling real life story.

After listening to this 'extreme' case, I encourage you to ponder your own software related metrics. Are they as accurate as you think they are? And what behaviors are they driving? What are you doing to prevent similar transgressions in your shop? This is worth giving some thought to on a regular basis for any metrics driven organization. It certainly has direct impact on quality. For that reason, I like to validate metrics results with qualitative observations, and where possible also customer feedback.

Jun 28, 2011
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