Measuring effort gets you effort

When outcomes are hard to measure, we can measure activity toward those outcomes

which gets us more activity

which is a negative, really, for any given outcome.

We’d like to have the same outcome for less effort. but when you measure and reward effort, instead we get maximum effort.

What’s the alternative? If we want the outcome, we need to push harder for it, right?

Nah. Set the conditions instead.

Jabe Bloom talked the other day about: you can focus on cause and effect (very Western) or on conditions and consequences (Eastern philosophy). On making something happen (Western) or on noticing and taking advantage when it happens. You can also change the conditions to make it more likely to happen.


Say we want higher-quality code (for some value of “quality” such as “can be safely changed”). That’s hard to measure.

Think about causes:

Where does high-quality code come from? Smarter developers. Let’s educate them, let’s measure how many instructional videos they watch.

Where else? Refactoring. Let’s measure how many refactors they do in a sprint, or how much time they spend on it.

From these measures, you’ll get developers watching videos and developers spending lots of time trying to change code without changing functionality. Some of this will be useful, and some will be spinning wheels.

or think about conditions:

What sets the stage for developers to write high-quality code? A deep understanding of the domain. Familiarity with their language. Adjusting code to reflect new understanding, as needed to support a change.

What facilitates this? Direct contact with business experts and with people who use the software. And slack time: unallocated time that accommodates whatever comes up — bugs, tasks harder than expected, deeper investigation. And trust: the developers will get the work done well.

Instead of “Are you doing what we need you to?” ask “Do you have what you need?” A little intrinsic motivation, plus conditions that encourage learning, turns competence into expertise.

Pushing a cart up a bumpy hill gets you a lot of sweat. Setting a flat route and smoothing the road gets you motion.

art by Cyndi Taylor