You can’t manage what you can’t measure (or, How to enter the multiverse)

March 15, 2017

I just read a sci-fi thriller about parallel universes that may be a candidate for this year’s summer reading list. Part of the plot invokes the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

In the past I’ve reflected on the impact of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in journalism, but this novel in combination with this excellent interview with Chris Anderson inspired me from another angle.

Quantum physicists have identified the principle of superposition, illustrated by the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat. Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger posited that a cat locked inside a steel chamber along with a quantum particle will remain in quantum superposition until it’s state is perceived by an outside observer.

In the novel, a scientist discovers a way to travel into parallel universes by using a drug that inhibits his ability to observe his state, thus allowing him to maintain a state of quantum superposition.

In other words, he overcomes the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle by not collapsing the channel to parallel universes because his mind cannot measure the state.

So if the act of measuring something changes its attributes, what about the inverse?

In order words, can you change an object’s attributes without measuring them? I would agree with Chris Anderson that the answer is not much. In business parlance, you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Or at least you cannot optimize the management of something without having the capacity to measure it. As an entrepreneur, how do you optimize your company’s growth if you can’t know the results of your actions?

In the digital world, where concepts like A/B testing, click-through rates, user acquisition costs, lifetime values, etc. are ubiquitous, precision measurement has now become commonplace. Using multivariable analysis on big data sets, one can determine how likely you are to click on an ad, whether you qualify for a loan, or what kind of movie you’re likely to enjoy next.

Experiment, measure, and adjust

The startups on whose boards I sit know that I’m a stickler for measuring: experiment, measure, and adjust is my favorite rant. Perhaps it’s driven by my fear that if we don’t make a habit of doing it, our competitors that do will eat our lunch. They will be running what people in robotics call closed-loop systems, while we’re running an open-loop one.

Now the amazing thing about the internet of things is that the proliferation of sensors will enable better measurement in the physical world. As Anderson puts it, “We are going to be able to close the loop in industry, agriculture, and the environment. We’re going to start to find out what the consequences of our actions are and, presumably, we’ll take smarter actions as a result.”


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