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(More or Less is only More or Less, More or Less)

Confusing. I know. Let’s unpack. 

We like to measure things. And, generally, that can be a very good thing. Once we measure and quantify, we can bring to bear the world’s most incredible toolbox of mathematical, engineering, and scientific methods. However…

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It often happens that we can’t really measure what we’d like to measure so instead we measure something that we can measure which we imagine to be a close cousin to what we’d really like to measure. That’s still not a bad thing. But it’s risky. And it becomes a lot more risky if we forget that we are measuring a close cousin at best. Sometimes, it’s actually a distant cousin. 

Here’s an example. Suppose a company is interested in the efficient handling of customer service calls (who isn’t?). A typical measure is the average time per call. So, a company might be tempted to reward their Customer Service employees based on having a short average time per call. The result would be that the customer would get back to whatever they were doing more quickly. AND — they wouldn’t have to be on hold in the service queue so long because each call would be handled, on average, more quickly. Good for the customer. The customer service reps would be saving money for the company by answering questions quickly. Some of the money saved will (hopefully) mean raises for the customer service reps. It’s a win/win/win! 

Or is it? 

Imagine this not unlikely scenario:

The managers of the CSR’s (customer service reps) say that there’s a big push from higher management to make calls go more quickly. They may hint that if the average service time goes down enough, everyone will get a raise. Or, they might set much more specific targets to shoot for. 

In either case, the CSR’s are motivated to handle calls more quickly. But how? One way might be for them to learn a whole lot more. They might exchange stories among themselves and perhaps they will participate in designing a system to help them find relevant information more quickly. It might really turn out to be a win/win/win.

On the other hand, one can also imagine that the CSR’s instead simply get rid of “pesky” users as quickly as possible.

“Reboot and call back if that doesn’t work.” 

“Sounds like an Internet issue. Check your router.” 

“That’s an uncovered item.” 

“What’s your account number? Don’t have it? Find it & call back.” 

With answers like this, the average time to handle a call will certainly go down!

But it won’t result in a win/win/win!

Users will have to call back 2, 3, 4 or even more times to get their issues adequately resolved. This will glut the hold queues more than if they had had their question answered properly in the first place. Endlessly alternating between raspy music and a message re-assuring the customer that their call is important to company XYZ, will not endear XYZ’s customers to XYZ.

Ultimately, the CSR’s themselves will likely suffer a drop in morale if they begin to view their “job” to get off the phone as quickly as possible rather than being to be as helpful as possible. Likely too, sales will begin to decline. As word gets around that the XYZ company has lousy customer service and comparative reviews amplify this effect, sales will decline even more precipitously. 

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There are two approaches executives often take in such a situation. 

Some executives (such as Mister Empathy) may be led to believe that quantification should be less emphasized and the important thing is to set the right tone for the CSR’s; to have them really care about their customers. Often, the approach is combined with better training. This can be a good approach.

Some executives (such as Mister Measure) may be led to believe that they need to do more quantification. In addition to average work time, measures will look at the percentage of users whose problem is solved the first time. Ratings of how effective the CSR was will be taken. Some users might even be called for in-depth interviews about their experience.  This can also be a good approach. 

There is no law against doing both, or trying each approach at different times or different places in order to learn which works better. 

There is a third approach however, which never has good results. That is the approach of Mister Misdirect.

Original drawing by Pierce Morgan

Mister Misdirect’s approach is to deny that there is an issue. Mister Misdirect doesn’t improve training. Mister Misdirect doesn’t put people in a better frame of mind. Mister Misdirect does not add additional measures. Mister Misdirect simply demands that CSR’s continue to drive down the average call time of individual calls and that sales go up! In extreme cases, Mister Misdirect may even fudge the numbers and make it appear that things are much better than they really are. Oh, yes. I have seen this with my own eyes. 

Unfortunately, this way of handling things often makes Mister Misdirect an addict. Once an executive starts down the path of making things worse and denying that they did so, they are easily ensnared in a trap. Initially, they only had to take responsibility for instituting, say an incomplete measure and failed to anticipate the possible consequences. But now, having lied about it, they would have to not only admit that they caused a problem, but also that they lied about it.

The next day, when executive wakes up, they have a choice: 

1. Own up 


2. Continue to deny

If they own up, the consequences will be immediately painful.
If they continue to deny, they will immediately feel relieved. Of course, if they have surrounded themselves with lackeys, they will feel more than simply relieved; they will feel vindicated or even proud. It’s not a “real pride” of course. But it’s some distant relative, I suppose. 

For a developer, UX person — or really any worker in an organization, the lesson from this is to anticipate such situations before they happen. If they happen anyway, try to call attention to the situation as quickly as possible. Yes, it may mean you  lose favor with the boss. If that is so, then, you really might want to think about getting a new boss. Mister Misdirect will always ultimately fail and when he does, he will drag down a work team, a group, a division, or even an entire company. Mister Misdirect has one and only one framework for solving problems:

Try whatever pops into consciousness. 

If it works, take the credit. 

If it fails, blame an underling. 

But the real fun begins when he takes credit for something and then it turns out it was really a failure. Then, there is only one choice for Mister Misdirect and that is to claim that the false victory was real. From there on, it is Lose/Lose/Lose.


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Relevant essays, poems, & fiction about the importance of speaking truth to power:

Pattern Language: “Reality Check”

The Truth Train 

The Pandemic Anti-Academic

How The Nightingale Learned to Sing

Process Re-Engineering Comes to Baseball


Posts on Problem Framing:

How to Frame Your Own Hamster Wheel

Wordless Perfection

Problem Formulation: Who Knows What?

I Went in Seeking Clarity

I Say Hello

Problem Framing: Good Point

Reframing the Problem: Paperwork & Working Paper

The Doorbell’s Ringing! Can you Get it?