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​Hidden Goals

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Oct 01, 2021

Recently I've been reading Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. I understand it to be a cornerstone for understanding the practice of Zen

Unfortunately, I just don't get it. In fact, I think I can safely say I never will. (It reminds me of the times I've made forays into Einstein's book on relativity. For the first bit I'm flowing along nicely — paying attention and grasping new concepts. 

The next thing I know, I'm left in the dust of a logical train that approaches the speed of light while gaining infinite length and I've got no idea what happens next.)

In Zen, there appears to be a lot of discussion around the idea that Zen practice is about not recognizing that Zen is being practiced — about not thinking of the practice, of not looking for achievement, of progress being made when less is understood, of…

Well, I'm sure I'm making a fool of myself trying to explain what I do not understand. And to any out there who practice Zen, two things. One, my apologies for this ham-handed (and possibly insulting) attempt to explain a nearly unexplainable concept. Two, I envy your ability to understand these concepts and your ability to practice them. (And, yes, such envy is the opposite of what Zen should be, but, again, I see few-to-no paths that will lead me to even beginning to gain a smidgen of enlightenment. I will just have to be envious.)

At the same time I was reading about what I will call (quite incorrectly) Zen's requirement to set aside focus on Zen, itself, I also became aware of Goodhart's Law and Strathern's Law.

Goodhart's law comes from British economist Charles Goodhart who advanced the idea in 1975.

Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.

In 1997, this was generalized by anthropologist Marilyn Strathern.

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

There is a lot of discussion out there about how auditors and their departments measure success. I've been caught in such verbal whirlpools myself. (I'd cite the blog posts, but there are too many.) While being a part of such discussions and encountering the measures being used, I've seen too many cases that support Strathern.

Which is where the world of Zen (as I misunderstand it) and Strathern's Law come together.

By trying to achieve a goal, have we lost the purpose of that goal? Just as Zen falls apart when the practitioner tries to focus on Zen, do goals fall apart when they become the focus of the one being measured?

Leading to the big question: Why is it required that we know any of the goals related to our performance or the performance of our department?

Before you all go ballistic on me, of course I know the answers we all spout. But are those answers correct? Or are we, once again, blithely moving forward on assumptions we assume to be correct?

If I am doing my job, if I understand what work is expected of me, if I focus on the quality of my work with an understanding of how to accomplish it effectively and efficiently, do I really need to know the specific measures?

In fact, does knowing those measures actually impact my work negatively? (See the laws quoted above.)

One year, my AVP gave me the measures that would be used for my evaluation in the coming year — full objectives that were specific, measurable, you know the drill. To be more precise, he gave me the 24 different measures that would be used for the coming year's evaluation.

I laughed in his face…literally. (Having me as an employee was never considered an easy gig at Farmers Insurance.) He looked nonplused, so I quickly explained that, while I saw the underlying value of every single measure (and there was a reason for each of them — some more important than others), I could not imagine any world in which any person could spend their time focusing on the excruciating details of 24 different measures while actually getting their work done.

I told him I didn't care what the measures were. He could feel free to put them in my annual appraisal, make them a part of my year-end evaluation, and take any actions he felt were necessary. But I couldn't spend my time worrying about those particular beads. Instead, I would focus on getting good work done in a timely fashion and hope that the numbers worked out in the end. And they did. I don't remember how many I met or by how much I missed any of the others, but I know I got a decent raise.

We all need feedback. We all need to know what we're doing right. We all need to know what we're doing wrong. We all need to know how to improve. But how important is it to know the actual numbers that will be used to determine if we are successful — the raw numbers that make up such evaluations. And, if we know those numbers, rather than spurring us forward, do they negatively impact what we do? And would not knowing really make our work worse?

I recognize the heresies contained herein. I mean, this is the same kind of thing we might write up as a finding. And to be honest, I'm not sure I agree with any or all of what I've said…


So let me know your thoughts

Just remember that 90% of all responses must be received within two weeks of the due date or your evaluations will suffer.

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.