Imagine you run a call center and you want to provide the team with productivity targets. You start with the number of calls people take, but your reps start hanging up on people so they will call back and double their volume. Next you go with customer satisfaction but your reps start giving everyone refunds even when it isn’t merited. You try length of time spent on calls and suddenly all your customers are on hold for hours. This problem is the foundation of Goodhart’s law, which states that “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”
This law applies to more than just productivity targets. If you target clicks in News Feed you get clickbait. If you target comments you get quizzes. If you create a bounty to get rid of snakes in your town people start breeding snakes and the population goes up instead of down. You get the idea.
I believe I have observed a novel form of this law: when a company slogan becomes an article of faith, it ceases to be a good slogan. For a long time Facebook was guided by the slogan “Move Fast and Break Things” until we were forced to retire it after it was serially and irreparably misunderstood. I fear the same thing for another internal mantra we have, to “Focus on Impact.”
Taken at face value, Focus on Impact seems pretty unobjectionable. Our value in the world is the impact we have on the people who use our products. I don’t think anyone would argue we should celebrate someone who works on something that doesn’t matter to the company, even if they worked very hard on it. The idea here is to be discerning about what really matters .
But there is a growing perception that this slogan somehow justifies a focus on short term gains. There is nothing in the words themselves that implies a short time horizon. And in my experience, Meta and its founder have always taken an impressively long-term view. But misconceptions like this have a way of taking hold and becoming self-fulfilling, and even the underlying fear that they’re true can be poison to company culture. So if you want people to focus on doing the work that has the most impact, how do you make clear what kind of impact you’re talking about?
Certainly you can explain to people what you mean by impact and also what you don’t mean. But the cues they will observe more closely are the things you celebrate and reward. People will notice if you celebrate the launch of something new but not the successful maintenance of something old. If you never celebrate a team shutting down a program or having a convincing failure then people will naturally gravitate in the opposite direction. Over time these trends compound until you have technical debt and feature creep. \
What I find fascinating is that people will take these courses of action even if they don’t believe it is the right thing to do. And they aren’t doing it cynically or out of petty self interest. It is just who we are as a species — we try to meet the cultural expectations around us first and foremost.
To that end a more powerful fix to this problem is to give people stronger ownership over their cultural context. If they don’t feel safe advocating to change their context they will just quietly work to succeed within it. This is hard when teams are growing so quickly that their membership is constantly in flux. If someone gets a new manager or a new direction every few months they will naturally have less faith that their well intentioned long term efforts will be rewarded. They will naturally seek more measurable gains on shorter timelines.