“Bean counter” is an expression in English language referring to “a person, typically an accountant or bureaucrat, perceived as placing excessive emphasis on controlling expenditure and budgets”. There are people who are mission oriented by focusing on the vision of a future but there are also bean-counters who are obsessed with measuring along certain identified metrics without recognising whether the metrics make sense or not. And that is the problem with our relationships with KPIs.
Let’s start from school. Today, we have more students than ever who are going through education system just to get a grade – not out of curiosity or a zeal to learn, but full of anxiety about a devastated future due to missing the grade. Why is the grade even an indicator and what is it indicating? Have we taught our students what the grade really mean? What an award or a prize really do to them? Thinking meta is important – and I’m definitely not referring to the metaverse.
Then businesses. There’s more than financial disclosure and accounting these days; there’s a lot around climate and impact related disclosures. At Enea, we help some of our clients navigate the requirements but more importantly, we advise our clients from first principles how to think about their business’ impact and interaction with the environment so as to report meaningfully to their stakeholders. Yet there are always consultants or companies who are focused on just taking a KPI which is popular out there and then using it – even cherry-picking the ones that look more favourable without a clear sense of what those measures are actually for.
Finally, there is the government, focused on giving a good report card to their political masters to show constituencies. There is still the traditional obsession with GDP and the growth figures, targeting job creation and so on. In fact, the term ‘statistics’, have more to do with the state than to do with the concept of numbers. Policies will really need to better articulate why metrics adopted are a good representation of the policy objectives and that results are not just reported when they look good, or for metrics to be chosen only after results are in. Being mission-focused is also more important than just sticking to a set of metrics. Because Goodhart’s law still applies.
Are you recognising the bean-counters amongst you? Those who are overly obsessed with the numbers without really appreciating what they mean? It’s probably worth focusing first on the parents who are obsessed with their kids getting an A.