8 June 2009 • 11:36 am

The Motivating Power of Measurement

Practitioners and fans of the balanced scorecard concept understand that measurement has the power to motivate behavior. The great challenge in driving change in any organization isn’t just to change the culture, but to change the behavior of individuals and groups inside the organization. Performance measurement doesn’t just tell us how well we’re doing at achieving a desired outcome, the very process of measurement and communication of measure results actually changes behavior.

A brief detour: when thinking about behavioral change in the workplace, you may be reminded of the Hawthorne Effect, a term referring to a famous experiment in the 1920s where factory workers productivity was found to improve when the lighting level in the factory was increased. Paradoxically, productivity also improved when the lighting level was subsequently decreased. The summary explanation for the effect suggested that the productivity gain among the factory workers was simply due to the motivational effect of the interest being shown in them. Well, there is a new development: according to an article in this week’s Economist, “idiosyncrasies in the way the experiments were conducted may have led to misleading interpretations of what happened.” In other words, the Hawthorne effect may not be true.

Notwithstanding new doubt about the Hawthorne effect, a compelling example of the power of measurement to change behavior comes from the world of medicine and public health. As detailed in an extensive 2006 New Yorker article by Atul Gawande, an unlikely revolutionary named Virginia Apgar transformed obstetrics and the nature of childbirth by devising a simple standard for scoring the health of a newborn baby at one, five, and sometimes ten minutes after birth. According to the New Yorker article (emphasis added):

The score was published in 1953, and it transformed child delivery. It turned an intangible and impressionistic clinical concept-the condition of a newly born baby-into a number that people could collect and compare. Using it required observation and documentation of the true condition of every baby. Moreover, even if only because doctors are competitive, it drove them to want to produce better scores-and therefore better outcomes-for the newborns they delivered.

Before Apgar scoring, babies delivered prematurely and with critical neonatal problems were often assumed to be not viable, and simply left to perish. The Apgar score, and the competition it produced, motivated doctors to take already understood steps to aid low-scoring newborns. The impact on neonatal mortality and survival has been astonishing. Again from the article:

In the United States today, a full-term baby dies in just one out of five hundred childbirths, and a mother dies in one in ten thousand. If the statistics of 1940 had persisted, fifteen thousand mothers would have died last year (instead of fewer than five hundred)-and a hundred and twenty thousand newborns (instead of one-sixth that number).

A simple measurement changed the behavior of medical professionals, and by extension, the hospitals in which they worked. The outcome of the behavior change is the survival of millions of babies. Carefully chosen and communicated measures have the power to change behavior and outcomes. This is the foundation for the design of every change program driven by the balanced scorecard.

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