You Can Manage What You Can’t Measure

Author: · August 3, 2009 · Filed Under General  - 3 Comment(s)

It was good to see Tom DeMarco’s article in IEEE Computer magazine renouncing his famous statement, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  My old friend and now departed co-author, Mike Evans, used to grumble that of course you could (and had to) manage things you couldn’t measure… In fact many things in a project are not measurable.  When Mike made this statement, invariably someone would blindly quote Tom DeMarco. 

In IEEE Computer, Tom’s article “Software Engineering, An Idea Whose Time Has Come and Gone”, points out that many things can be managed that can’t be measured.

“Can I really be saying that it’s OK to run projects without control or with relatively little control? Almost. I’m suggesting that first we need to select projects where precise control won’t matter so much. Then we need to reduce our expectations for exactly how much we’re going to be able to control them, no matter how assiduously we apply ourselves to control.”

Now please don’t misquote me on this topic.  Metrics are valuable for software projects as well as learning for the next one. But some of the items required to manage a project, such as morale, cannot be reduced to simple metrics.  Tom goes on to say:

So, how do you manage a project without controlling it? Well, you manage the people and control the time and money.

Tom says that perhaps software engineering’s time has come and gone.  This may be true for small, non-mission critical projects — hacking up a new web page or changing some simple application.  But generally, software is getting more, not less, complex.  Companies are suffering and spending up to 20% of their IT budgets on projects that are challenged or failed.  We need agile.  We need processes.  We need measurement and improvement in the industry.  And I agree wholeheartedly that projects should be those with the most business value.

Measure what matters.  Manage both measurable and unmeasurable elements.

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3 Responses to “You Can Manage What You Can’t Measure”

  1. Pavel Barseghyan on September 11th, 2009 8:15 pm

    Of course sometimes you can manage what you can�t measure.
    But the meaning of DeMarco�s words �You can�t manage what you can�t measure.� is the following:
    Measurable things come under better control than immeasurable things.
    In addition sometimes it is simply meaningless to measure even measurable things because of the measurement reliability problems.
    A classical example of this is the measurement of human productivity for project works or other type of complex works, because nobody wants to be measured. In most cases, measuring the productivity of people at difficult works is self-deception.
    In this sense we need reliable project management theories that can replace the measurement of immeasurable things by the:
    - Measurement of easy measurable parameters of projects such as effort, duration, staffing and then
    - Calculation of immeasurable parameters using reliable theories.
    Classical example of this kind of approach to the measurement problems is the equilibrium thermodynamics.
    Here are two main advantages of thermodynamics for project management:
    � Thermodynamics is an experimental science built by the means of bottom-up generalization of the data,
    � One of the major services of Thermodynamics � the avoidance of redundant measurements among macroscopic variables.

    The primary service afforded by Thermodynamics:
    � Means of transforming certain useful macroscopic data concerning a system into other useful macroscopic data on the same system,
    � The goal here is to avoid the measurement difficulties.

    Thermodynamic theory of projects allows measuring the human productivity without measuring it directly.

    For productivity calculations one can use project management theories presented here:
    and here:

    Pavel Barseghyan

  2. Business development process on April 14th, 2010 8:31 am

    I have just been having this conversation with one of my fellow directors about measuring our sales leads and by measuring them we can manage them too – One of the best sayings in business and for business!

  3. Fatos e Falácias da Engenharia de Software – notas do livro | hopeful ramble on December 3rd, 2012 10:24 am

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