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Liz Ryan Headshot

Addicted to Yardsticks

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My friend Genevieve and I were having dinner, and talking about our memories from school. Genevieve told me about her first big kid-school showdown, in fifth grade. Her teacher's way of teaching the kids definitions was to have the kids write down the word (say, albatross) and a dictionary definition of the word, three or four times over.

The idea was that the kids would write down the definitions, and forever after remember the meaning of the word. (I guess that was the idea -- who the heck knows?)

Genevieve, as a fifth-grader, was aghast at the pointlessness of the project. She told the teacher that she learned words in context and that memorizing someone else's definition of a word wouldn't help her. She told her teacher that, in any case, words have more than one definition, and that memorizing Webster's definition or the OED wouldn't help a kid gain an understanding of a word's use in the real world.

No dice -- the teacher insisted. Genevieve did the homework, and at the same time a little light bulb switched on in her head. It was the light bulb called Just Because People Are Grownups Doesn't Mean They Are Smart (or Wise).

I remember having that "aha!" in school. Mine happened around the same time (fourth grade, I think) when the teacher put a list of spelling words on the blackboard (they still used those things, back then). One of the words on the board was unfamiliar to me. The word was 'gerble.'

I asked a very bad question to ask in school back then. I asked the teacher "I don't know that word 'gerble' -- can you tell us what it means, or is it a misspelling of 'gerbil?'"

Wham! I was in the principal's office 45 seconds later, bewildered and hot with the kind of shame that is too shameful to talk about -- the 'you broke a frame' shame that Fear Method teachers used to employ to keep inquiring little minds in line. One of the worst things about breaking frames as a kid is that no one ever tells you what frame you smashed, or why it's there, or why no one will talk about it.

When I got back to class, you guessed it -- my assignment was to write out the spelling words on the board many times. Did those old-school teachers know that mindlessly writing out words puts a kid in a boredom trance, his or her brain worlds away, that will keep the kid out of the teacher's hair?

At the end of the week, as I'm sure you guessed, came a test to make sure all that copying and not-asking-questions equipped the kids to spell the blackboard words correctly. Success! Kids who can spell words, not ask questions, and not break frames make the very best employees, in factory or office or Department of Motor Vehicles facility.

In the grown-up world, at work, all of the same frames are in place. Don't ask questions about why things work the way they do, and don't question authority. The whole point of authority, as it turns out, is that it enables people to tell you to do things and command you in ways that aren't to be questioned because, things being how they are, authority is the thing that doesn't get questioned.

And we are addicted to measurements and yardsticks.

We teach kids that the learning they're doing in school is in order to pass a test -- that the test is the point of the learning. We teach them what A and B mean in the context of school, and we get them addicted those As and Bs at an early age. We teach them that approval (much less praise!) from authority figures is way more important than what they're discovering about themselves and the world.

We teach them to spot, pursue and value yardsticks and trophies above almost everything else. Being first in the foot race is awesome, and so is becoming class president and winner of the spelling bee. We set kids up perfectly to go to work and please their bosses, strive to become vice president of their companies by age 35 and then experience a crisis at age 40, when they wake up one day asking "What was the point? What is the point, still?"

We get kids addicted to yardsticks and trophies, and we make it a kid's mission to hit those marks and work hard to the point where they forget who they are, forget that there's even a reason to ask "Who am I?" and stay head down on the trail of more trophies and blue ribbons as long as they are alive. We teach them not to stop and smell the roses, because a test is coming up Friday. We don't say to the kid, "But wait! The test is just invented. People sat a conference room and made it up. It doesn't matter. It has nothing to do with anything."

We make a good score on every test a major win for the kid, as though it were a real win like climbing a tree or teaching a baby cousin to ride a tricycle. We get kids addicted to fake wins, so they need that external approval to keep coming in order to feel good about themselves.

It astounds me, looking at my own fifth-grader and his wild curiosity, to see that adults think keeping kids indoors at square desks doing worksheets is equivalent (no, superior!) to having the kids poking at tree roots and spotting toads and lichen.

One week a year, kids in our town are lucky enough to go up to the mountains and learn about the world as it really is, not the fake world of problems on black-and-white worksheets. (Fifth grade, and the worksheets are already black and white. Why is color reserved for small children? Is is considered part of the maturation process, to be content to live in black and white?)

For one week a year, the kids learn how things work in reality. The rest of the time, they strive for gold stars and medals in the made-up world whose virtues are obedience, compliance and Not Questioning Anything.

At work, the addiction to yardsticks is pathological. We can't get enough of poking, prodding and measuring employees. We line them up against the wall and force-rank them in order of something (coolness? ass-kissiness?) and tell them where they came out in the ranking. We give them performance reviews whether they want them or not, because we are bosses and we get to do that if we feel like it. We tell them that if they work really hard, they can make Director two or three years down the line.

We slice and dice our teams six ways to Sunday, and ignore the fact that the team itself has an energy and momentum that has zip-all to do with whether Sandy or Javier is certified in something-or-other, or not. We keep the chant going: Skills! Yardsticks! Improvement! We treat complex, vital, passionate adults with hearts and brains as though they were children, teaching them to react not to the environment and their own trusty guts but to what a supervisor thinks about them, and to their ranking on the company's internal stock index. It's sick, and it's bad for business and the planet.

You can tell when an organization is addicted to yardsticks, because when you work there or go to a job interview there, that's all they can talk about. The next time you go on a job interview or talk to a friend at another company, ask them what things they measure and track.

"Oh, we just track hours, so we can assign our hours to specific projects," your friend might say, "and we track attendance, and the on-time release of software, and we track bugs and bug fixes and customer complaints and the number of times we had to re-write documentation, and a few other things." Any one of those 'track it' items would slow down momentum on its own; together, they represent a barricade of processes and tick-mark-accumulators that are pretty much guaranteed to make innovation or creative thought an impossibility.

Ironically, in our quest to make sure everyone is accountable and nothing goes wrong (or if it does, someone will be blamed!) we keep energy from going anywhere. Forget new ideas, in an environment like that. Forget trust. People who've been brought up to respect and fear yardsticks will hew to the measuring system, and all the good stuff -- whimsy, spark, or random association that could start a chain reaction of brilliance on your team - goes out the window.

Companies are very choosy about who gets to spend money. They don't let every first-line supervisor make big purchases, because cash is king. It's odd that they let fearful managers design processes that suck up so much time and creative energy, like time-tracking and multiple signature requirements and tick marks and yardsticks plastered over everything they do.

A wise leader will spend his or her time dismantling the apparatus of paranoid checks and balances and measurements that we at Human Workplace call Godzilla (after the Blue Oyster Cult song). Godzilla is good for your competitors, not for you. Godzilla is good for your long-term disability insurance provider, not for your employees.

If you have a fifth-grader, grab the kid and say "Beware of yardsticks, kid! Yardsticks and trophies are evil ideas designed to keep you off your path, and on someone else's path for you!" It's no different when we are thirty-five and fifty-seven years old. The yardstick is always the fearful person's idea for how to make things better. ("Here's an idea: let's stop what we're doing, and measure something!")

People aren't measurable items, unless we are measuring them by height or the number of times they've seen Star Wars. We do not lend ourselves to measurement. If you want people do exciting things, stand back and let them explore the environment alone and together. It's the interaction with the real world that has all the answers we need in business, as in childhood. If you want to create a new process in your company, make it the Yardstick Elimination Process, and give your employees a hundred bucks whenever they 86 another tedious process whose only function is to slow down momentum. Teach them to tell the truth about what they see, and to ask fifth-grade questions.

And when performance review time rolls around, don't evaluate employees according to someone else's goals for them. Ask each person, "What got you excited this year? What can we do to keep you excited next year?" Don't fire the truth-tellers, above all; if you feel like firing someone, fire the people who live to feed Godzilla. We can feel compassion for those guys, but they can't help your company thrive.