McNamara’s fallacy – some more problems with measurement

Earlier on today, I was reading through Bernard Bass’s 1995 paper from Leadership Quarterly (*) and came across McNamara’s fallacy (**) for the first time. It argues that leaders taking account of things that can’t be measured is at least as (more?) important than those that can be.

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

It’s not difficult to think of examples from my own working life where I’ve been too obsessed by things that I’ve been able to easily quantify at the expense of others that can’t be – quite often with disastrous results. It’s also rather too easy to think of people I’ve worked for who appear to continually fall foul of this fallacy too. But at least I’ve not worked in the environment where Bass believes that Handy drew his inspiration from. He notes that the fallacy was presumably named after Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, where body counts were used as measures of battle success.

(*) Bass, B.M. (1995). Theory of Transformational Leadership Redux. Leadership Quarterly, 6(4), 463-478.

(**) Handy, C. (1994). Age of paradox. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.


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