How To Measure Anything, Even Intangibles

Some things are easy to measure. Time, money, exercise, calories, location – all of these are relatively straightforward to repeatably determine or calculate. 
But how does one go about measuring happiness? What about compassion, or public influence, or creativity? These are more intangible, harder to pin down to a number that means anything.
Douglas Hubbard has written an impressive work called “How To Measure Anything: Finding the Value of Intangibles in Business.” The book is available here

While it’s written primarily for business people, the lessons transfer smoothly to self-experimenters. Hubbard begins with a compelling case for why to measure intangibles:
“Often, an important decision requires better knowledge of the alleged intangible, but when a [person] believes something to be immeasurable, attempts to measure it will not even be considered.
As a result, decisions are less informed than they could be. The chance of error increases. Resources are misallocated, good ideas are rejected, and bad ideas are accepted. Money is wasted. In some cases life and health are put in jeopardy. The belief that some things–even very important things–might be impossible to measure is sand in the gears of the entire economy.
Any important decision maker could benefit from learning that anything they really need to know is measurable.”

He goes on to explain in detail how to measure intangibles, including sections on how to clarify problems, calibrate estimates, measure risk, sample reality, and use Bayesian statistics to add to available knowledge. He also describes his Applied Information Economics (AIE) Approach that ties together several threads of his ideas:

“The AIE approach addresses four things:
1. How to model a current state of uncertainty
2. How to compute what else should be measured
3. How to measure those things in a way that is economically justified
4. How to make a decision”

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I’m working my way through the book, and will post any new insights as I go. Feel free to add your own comments to this post too!
Thanks to Daniel Reda for finding this gem.
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6 Responses to How To Measure Anything, Even Intangibles

  1. Matthew Cornell says:

    Thanks a ton for the pointer. I love this passage on page 30:
    > An important lesson comes from the or igin of the word “experiment.” “Experiment”" comes from the Latin ex-, meaning “”of/from,” and periri, meaning “try/attempt.” It means, in other words, to get something by trying. The statistician David Moore, the 1998 president of the American Statistical Association, goes so far as to say: “If you don’t know what to measure, measure anyway. You’ll learn what to measure.”
    I made talked about this point in my talk at the Boston Quantified Self #3 – that sometimes the simple act of measurement can have profound effects.
    Can’t wait to keep reading…

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  6. You can, in fact, measure anything, in our view, but doing so is sometimes a challenge even for those who are convinced the claim is true. We simply need to recognize that the perceived challenge results from some of the same old, entrenched misconceptions. Your problem is most likely not as unusual as you think; there are sources of information you can use, if you think creatively about how to apply them; calibrated experts can make good estimates of their uncertainty about the data points they provide; and calculating the expected value of information can focus you on collecting the most useful additional data, not wasting effort and resources on data that won’t help much.

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