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Goodhart’s Law

By October 14, 2023No Comments

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Have you ever heard the story about a village where they wanted to rid themselves of the pesky cobra problem. They decided to reward anyone who brought a dead cobra, hoping it would motivate the villagers to help eliminate them.

It worked, until it didn’t.

People began breeding cobras just to kill them and claim the reward. The measure became the target. And when the reward was withdrawn? The breeders released the cobras. The village had more cobras than ever.

Peter Drucker noted, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” True, yet fraught with pitfalls if misunderstood.

Enter: Goodhart’s Law.

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Says who? Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, highlighting a truth known to many yet overlooked by more.

We’ve all seen it. The story of the nail factory in Soviet Union? Targets set on the number led to useless tiny nails. When the measure shifted to weight, giant useless nails emerged.

Politicians? Their success, often swayed by approval ratings, can push them to opt for popularity over substance.

Schools? Exams dominate, with the real essence of education often lost amidst the chase for grades.

Hospitals? Patient recovery rates become the focus, sometimes leading to a decline in actual quality of care.

And our researchers? The pressure to ‘publish or perish’ can sometimes overshadow the value of genuine, impactful research.

But here’s a twist: Goodhart’s isn’t the only law in town.

Remember that cobra story? It finds resonance in the Cobra Effect, where the solution becomes the problem.

The pressure to corrupt or cheat data to make it fit the desirable measure.

But let’s not throw the measurement baby out with the bathwater.

Goodhart didn’t discount measurement. His focus was on the misuse of such metrics, especially when they become the goal themselves.

So how do we move forward?

  • Pre-Mortems: Before establishing a metric, play devil’s advocate. What could go wrong? How could this metric be misused?
  • Authentic metrics: Use proxies that represent the goal more accurately. It’s harder, yes, but more reflective of the real objective.
  • Tension in numbers: Use two metrics that counterbalance each other, providing a fuller picture.
  • Broaden your scope: Don’t rely on a single metric. Look for a mix, qualitative and quantitative, to get a true representation.

Metrics are a tool, not the endgame.

In the end, let’s not be the villagers breeding cobras. Let’s be aware, adaptive, and always ready to question our measures.

Because while “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it,” if you don’t measure wisely, you might just end up worse off.


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