Quantifying the Unquantifiable

In every workshop I conduct the issue of measures, a STEM view of evidence and ‘controls’ are always raised. This week was no exception. I find it so amusing that the industry has this fixation with measures in working life and the opposite in our private life. Yet:

The most important things in living cannot be measured.

imageSo much that is important in life cannot be measured yet we have this psychosis in risk and safety with the quantitative. What matters most to you in life like: love, trust, care, resilience, peace, respect, integrity and learning cannot be quantified. Indeed, any effort to quantify these, wreck the very quality of their experience.

It is because none of these experiences can be quantified that humans go to poetics to find meaning but, you can measure a sonnet, a sunset or a dance. You can’t quantitatively measure art, performance, literature, song, music, prayer or metaphor. Does that make these understandings irrelevant or invalid? Of course not, but it show the limitations of what risk and safety defines as valid knowledge.

I was working this week with a not-for-profit organization who were indoctrinated, intimidated and seduced by all the gobbledygook, mumbo-jumbo and fantasy associated with the industry on risk assessment. Similar to the last school I worked with, they had been convinced they needed massive documentation, risk matrices, coloured numbering systems and absurd categorizations to ‘demonstrate’ that they could manage risk. Yet, the moment I questioned what they had assembled we quickly moved from a discussion about managing risk to fear of prosecution, accountability and what the industry had normalized. Once we assemble all this gobbedlygook and normalize it in a culture, the questions stop and attributions amplify. What was interesting was when I asked how it worked, how the documentation process helped manage risk, they couldn’t tell me how it actually influenced their decision making.

One of the most challenging aspects of questioning all that we burden organizations with in risk and safety is how it is anchored to fear not reality. The reality is that most of this documentation set in stone in risk and safety orthodoxy is not actually used in the way we assess risk and, similarly the many attributions of success are not questioned. The truth is most of this stuff doesn’t actually work. Most of the time we evaluate risk on the go, we use intuitive heuristics to determine what risk we will take in the heat of the moment. So much of what we choose to do is emotionally determined and yet intuitional and emotive decision-making is never discussed in a risk assessment because ‘what can’t be measured can’t be managed’, again more orthodox safety mythology. Hence much of what my clients were anxious about was nothing more than pure safety mythology.

When we actually stepped outside, put the pieces of paper behind and discussed how people actually managed decisions in risk in their work, it was completely disconnected from the documentation they felt they had to put in place. How strange that safety validates such disconnectedness. This is discussed by Greg Smith and myself in the video series we produced on Risky Conversations on the topic of diagnosis (https://vimeo.com/166158437 ). You can view the full video series here: https://vimeo.com/showcase/3938199

When we shift our focus from this fixation with measurement to the things that cannot be measured we soon find where the real challenges are to tackling risk and safety. You can have all the paperwork and systems in place that you like but if trust is low and fear is high, your organization will not manage risk well.

18. DIAGNOSIS from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

6 Replies to “Quantifying the Unquantifiable”

  1. In a previous company we had a learning practitioner who used to say he wants to write a book with the title “What you measure is what you control is what you get”. While he actually tried to convey the importance of measurement, he ended up making a very true statement. If your focus is on measurement , you will control what can be measured and you will end up getting what you controlled. What he missed, however, is that you do not necessarily get what you want, you get what you measured. In the case of safety, this often means you measure paperwork, and what you get is paperwork explosions. Once you start measuring, you tend not to realise that you get a lot of other stuff that is not measured, and may even (likely?) have more (negative?) impact than the positive impact of the measured component.

    1. I find it amusing this industry that imagines it cares about risk and safety and spends all its time and energy on low risk and risk that doesn’t matter. Measuring stuff of no significance and filling volumes of bureaucratic nonsense that are never ‘used’ on site or in decision making.

  2. Rob I agree with you wholeheartedly. Everything is paper based and still includes research from the previous century as people want to have themselves heard with their names under every document. However just been through a severe health issue myself now let me think what about things like hormonal imbalances Serotonin, dopamine, iodine and thoracic activity etc. Never seen anybody test that after an incident yet. Please give me your thought. Thanks for the brilliant insights.

  3. Rob I agree with you wholeheartedly. Everything is paper based and still includes research from the previous century as people want to have themselves heard with their names under every document. However just been through a severe health issue myself now let me think what about things like hormonal imbalances Serotonin, dopamine, iodine and thoracic activity etc. Never seen anybody test that after an incident yet. Please give me your thought. Thanks for the brilliant insights.

  4. In a previous company we had a learning practitioner who used to say he wants to write a book with the title “What you measure is what you control is what you get”. While he actually tried to convey the importance of measurement, he ended up making a very true statement. If your focus is on measurement , you will control what can be measured and you will end up getting what you controlled. What he missed, however, is that you do not necessarily get what you want, you get what you measured. In the case of safety, this often means you measure paperwork, and what you get is paperwork explosions. Once you start measuring, you tend not to realise that you get a lot of other stuff that is not measured, and may even (likely?) have more (negative?) impact than the positive impact of the measured component.

    1. I find it amusing this industry that imagines it cares about risk and safety and spends all its time and energy on low risk and risk that doesn’t matter. Measuring stuff of no significance and filling volumes of bureaucratic nonsense that are never ‘used’ on site or in decision making.

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