For the past century and a half, we’ve become driven by measurement, a consequence of the revolution in philosophy and science ushered in by the work of René Descartes in the 17th century.
Descartes’ profound contribution was to make detached, analytical observation of the world central to human knowledge. He gave wings to the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation which has transformed our way of living. And he did so by being committed to objectivity – what’s independently observable and measurable, as opposed to subjectivity – the particular first-person lived experience of being-you or being-me that cannot be described in objective ways.
By dividing subject and object in the way that he did, Descartes gave us tools to stand back from the world with a critical, doubting eye and to make new startling new discoveries. But in order to do so he had to split ‘I’ from ‘world’ – leaving out personal experience completely because of the way it appears to arise from the mysterious insides of a person’s mind rather than being ‘of the world’.
Descartes gave us a world in which we take ‘hard’ – what’s objective – to be real and of primary importance and ‘soft’ – what’s subjective – to be secondary, often so far as to be considered of no value at all. And so completely do we live in this Cartesian world that it can be difficult for us to see how much we systematically discount by looking at the world, and ourselves, through these eyes. Even the words ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ say much about our orientation to these matters.
There will be much more to say about this over the coming days and weeks. But for now, a simple question – how often in organisational life are you insisting on looking only for what you can measure, and consequently how much of the human world of your work are you not looking at, at all?
‘Hard’ measures can tell you much about machines, or processes, or inventory, or money. But they will leave out most of what’s meaningful about the people who work with you – the ‘soft’ stuff that isn’t ‘soft’ at all and which can only really be discovered by being in conversation with others. And this is precisely because people are not objects but subjects, the kind of being that the Cartesian world in which we live goes to great lengths to discount.
Hard measures – productivity, hours worked, behaviours observed, profit earned – will tell you nothing about vital human concerns such as meaning, aliveness, longing, camaraderie, friendship, love, dedication, frustration, resentment, inspiration and so on – because people are essentially ‘I’ rather than ‘it’, subjects rather than objects.
You may well be trying to shape the life of your organisation by paying attention to what’s measurable when you should also be paying attention to what’s not measurable, but equally real.