Organizations can easily do the wrong thing by mistaking the means for the ends. Following are a couple examples I ran across in the past few days.
Airlines are subject to on-time rankings, a means to demonstrate reliability and thus customer satisfaction. However, these rankings are only based on non-stop flights, so they don’t consider flights that act as connections. And thus we have problems like what Ross Mayfield reports here:
It was abundantly clear last night when my connection was delayed that the airline industry is running on the wrong metrics. Half of the plane missed their connecting flight, most by minutes, when doors were still open, but gates closed — for sake of on-time-departure. The last planes left within a half an hour and we were left stranded in Virginia without hotel rooms in the vicinity.
Much of the airline industry operates via the “hub and spoke” method of multi-hop trips, so this kind of scenario is not a fluke. While it’s true that airlines will sometimes hold the connecting flight in close situations, the on-time metric creates a perverse incentive not to do so—despite the fact the metric exists as a proxy for customer satisfaction.
Method versus Mission
Former CIA Director George Tenet used to describe the CIA’s business as “stealing secrets.” In the CIA’s Studies in Intelligence journal, Stephen Mercado critiques this mindset for conflating a method (stealing secrets) with the organization’s mission, which is to provide actionable intelligence about national security. Mercado argues that another method—improving the CIA’s analysis of freely available information (“open sources”) such as from foreign newspapers—is more effective yet underutilized:
Despite numerous surveys putting the contribution of open sources anywhere from 35 to 95 percent of the intelligence used in the government, [open-sources intelligence’s] share of the overall intelligence budget has been estimated at roughly 1 percent.
Mercado argues that the “stealing secrets” mindset is so deeply ingrained in the CIA’s culture that the method has become the mission. After making an argument for open-sources intelligence, he advocates doubling its budget—to 2% of the overall intelligence budget—which is apparently a radical proposal.