Business Sutra |6.1| What can be measured?

Business Sutra |6| Measurements

We have covered five episodes of Devdutt Pattanaik’ TV serial on CNBC 18:  Business Sutra.

The 1st episode presented to us the most visible form of the business – the corporation: its meaning, its purpose and its action perspective. In the 2nd episode Devdutt Pattanaik discusses Leadership: Role of the leader, Context of the leader and Leadership in different business cycles. The 3rd episode relates to the Business Ethics and Morals:  business ethics and dilemmas, relationship between owner and the organization  and The Right (Dharma) – the Ramayana way and the Mahabharata way. The 4th episode deals with Conflicts, of the Board and the CEO and that of the means vs. ends. The 5th episode takes unto the realm of Education, wherein Part 1 covered the basics of education to the (potential) leaders in Ram’s Education, Part 2 addressed the Knowledge Transfer to Next Gen and Part 3 dealt with the issue of student motivation.

Devdutt Pattanaik takes up one of the most fundamental tenet of the management theory in the 6th episode the series. In the prologue to the episode, he states that, ‘Every B-school teaches students that what cannot be measured cannot be managed. Implicit in this comment is that there are many things out there that cannot be measured, hence cannot be managed. But is that true? We cannot measure our relationships yet we manage them one way or another. The need for measurement comes from the desire to get to a truth that is independent of human bias, independent of human beings. But is truth independent of humanity. Organizations are a bunch of human beings – so an organization’s truth can never be objective. It will be subjective. It will be informed and influenced by the goalpost and the values one chooses to believe in.’

He ends his submission with the lines from the poet Alvar (Tamil mystics who lived at least a thousand years earlier):

“I wonder who is measuring.
I wonder what is measured.
I wonder who determines the measuring scale.
Are they different or the same?”

Business Sutra |6.1| What can be measured?

It would be almost axiomatic to assume that the modern western management science and the practices too, rest quite solidly on the foundation of measurements. In order to make the measurement as objective and as dynamic, it has cast its net wide into several other social, economic or pure and applied sciences. From the beginning of 20th century till now and even thereafter, all-encompassing debate keeps overflowing the western management literature.

The subject is highly researched and hotly debated, resulting into the considered outcomes that span form one of the spectrum to the other.

So, we leave the detailed pursuit of the western management thoughts on “What can be measured” to our readers and take up the Segment 1 of the episode 6 wherein Devdutt Pattanaik takes up the subject of What can be measured?.

Can everything be measured? Is all measurement accurate? Is it true that if you cannot measure it you cannot manage it? Are we headed for measurement overkill? Is that why in mythology the god of accounting or measurement is none other than Yama the god of death?

But the truth of our modern lives is that everything has to be measured – whether it’s our personal ambition, personal happiness or our professional output and therefore professional success. How do you escape measurement?

When we use the word measurement, we are trying to create an objective reality. It is the one that we all can agree is the reality. But there is another reality that exists which is the subjective reality – the personal reality.

Let me explain this in the form of a story. One day Narad came to Mount Kailasa, with a mango in his hand. He said this mango is for the one who runs fastest, who goes three times around the world the fastest and so Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya decided that we will go for the race. Karthikeya immediately leapt on his vehicle, a peacock and flew around the world three times. As he started his rounds, Ganesha sat right in the center doing nothing. He just sat there waiting, while his brother was flying around the world, once and then twice. Just when his brother was about to complete the third round, Ganesha got up and just went around his parents once twice thrice and said I won the race. Kartikeya contested the claim. Ganesha says you went around THE world, whereas I went around MY world.

What matters more in this story is the difference between objective and subjective reality. Karthikeya represents objective reality in this narrative and Ganesha represents subjective reality. Both types of realities matter. So when we are talking about measurements we focus only on one half of the truth – the objective reality. We have completely ignored the other half of the truth which is subjective reality, which is gut feeling, which is qualitative, which cannot be measured. It is about taste, it is about instinct, it is about intuition which cannot be measured. Some of the greatest success stories in the world are based not on objective reality but on the subjective realities of imagination.

But everything today in the world is driven towards measuring everything, whether it is objective or subjective. Is your argument then that some things just cannot be measured?

Some things cannot be measured. Emotions cannot be measured.

But you can create them – are you happy? Are you very happy? Are you very very happy? There is some form of measurement.

Let me tell you the danger of the story of what happens when you try to measure EVERYTHING. You’ve heard about the tragedy of King Lear, the Shakespeare play. It is about the tragedy of a king who tries to measure the love of his daughters, This play is based on a German folktale of the goose-girl which of course all Indians will claim is has its origins in India.

The story is that of a father who asks his daughters how much do you love me? The eldest daughter says I love you as much as sugar and the youngest daughter says I love you as much as salt. In the father’s mind sugar had a higher score and so he said the elder daughter loves me more and the younger daughter does not love me. He, therefore, rejects the younger daughter. Yet from the younger daughter’s perspective she was trying to say how much she loved him because you cannot eat anything unless it contains salt. You cannot eat anything unless it has some salt. So it is the matter of your perception.

The measuring scale may be objective but the measurer is not nor is the person who’s reading the measurement. So if I look at a measure scale, on one side is the person who measures and the other side is a person who is reading the measurement. There are two people, each one coming to the table with his respective bias, with his prejudices. We are completely ignoring this. We assume that if an auditor comes into the picture he will figure out the truth..

Because he is more objective…

The auditor is a human being, with his own prejudices, with his own bias, with his own power games, coming to the table. We do not realize that what the truth that emerges is not just the measure what the measuring scale tells us but a combination of the reading on the measuring scale as well as the subjective realities of the person who measures, the person who is reading the measurement and then the auditor in between. So what you get is a very warped reality.

But there is no solution to this, because we have to measure in the modern world.  In large organizations if you want to reward, you have to understand how good the performance is before you reward it. Therefore measurement is embedded in almost every stage – how the individual performs in an organization, how a team performs, how the organization itself performs for shareholders, for stakeholders, etc. So, how do you get away from measurement, while fully acknowledging that part of it is subjective and part of it is objective?

We are trying to create a world which is 100% objective and therefore we are assuming that we will create a fair world. This is The Promised Land, where everything is 100% objective. This is the goalpost – I want to create the objective world, a fair world. But if you recognize that no matter how hard we try, we will only be 50 percent objective.  Therefore, all our measurements will have flaws in them. I am closer to reality if I am comfortable accepting that the balance sheet is not THE truth, the CV which comes to me is not THE truth. It is an indicator of the truth, but not the whole truth. That recognition is sometimes missing, because of what I call as an  over reliance on measurement. Today it is only about measurement, where as it should be also about measurement.

Let me give you an example of subjectivity. You have heard the story of a king called Mahabali who will give everything to anybody whatever they want. Suddenly, a dwarf comes in front of him. The dwarf says give me three paces of land. Mahabali says yes take three paces of land. So the dwarf starts taking the first step. The moment he takes the first of the three paces, this dwarf turns into a giant and takes the gigantic paces. Within the paces covers the heaven and earth and then he has no place to put his third foot. He says where I should put it. The Mahabali says put it on my head. With that he is crushed and shoved under the earth.

The story talks about subjectivity of measurement. What I think is three paces and what the other person thinks is three paces is very different. So the person who created the measure and the person who is using the measure are looking at very differently. That is where conflicts emerge. We would like there to be this one absolute measurement scale, but everybody’s reference point is different. That is the point that is referred to in the Indian mythology – not in its philosophy. The word measure is based on a on a Sanskrit alphabet called MA, from where comes the word Measure. From this not only the word Measuring Standard comes, which is the reference measuring scale, but also the word Maya which is delusion.

So what one is basically told is be careful of measurements….

So, like the western school, Indian Mythology does not outright reject the measurement. Both have very meticulously laid out that sole focus should not be on the measurement but the measures should also be viewed holistically – from the perspective of why measure, for whom to measure, to measure in what context, how to and how much to measure, when to measure, etc.

In our continuing journey of Devdutt Pattanaik’s TV serial Business Sutra, we will move on to the 2nd segment of the 6th episode – Objective vs. Subjective Measurements, in our next episode.

Note: The images used in this post are the irrevocable property of their respective creator. They have been taken up courtesy the internet, so as to illustrate the point under discussion.


In July 2011, I opted to retire from my active career as a practicing management professional. In the 38 years that I pursued this career, I had opportunity to work in diverse capacities, in small-to-medium-to-large engineering companies. Whether I was setting up Greenfield projects or Brownfield projects, nurturing the new start-ups or accelerating the stabilized unit to a next phase growth, I had many more occasions to take the paths uncharted. The life then was so challenging! One of the biggest casualty in that phase was my disregards towards my hobbies - Be with The Family, Enjoy Music form Films of 1940s to mid-1970s period, write on whatever I liked to read, pursue amateur photography and indulge in solving the chess problems. So I commenced my Second Innings to focus on this area of my life as the primary occupation. At the end of four years, I am now quite a regular blogger. I have been able to build a few very strong pen-relationships. I maintain contact with 38-years of my First Innings as freelance trainer and process facilitator. And yet, The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

15 thoughts on “Business Sutra |6.1| What can be measured?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: