On Vector Measurement: the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of

I’ll start this post with an excerpt from a podcast in which Stephen Fry was the guest. He recalled the following passage from a Sherlock Holmes book:

“You know Watson, the statistician has shown that we can predict, to an extraordinary order of accuracy, the behaviour of the ‘average man’

…but no one has yet, and probably never will be able to predict how an individual will behave.” (Sherlock Holmes, ‘The Sign of Four’ as verbally recalled by Stephen Fry)

Fry went on to add:

“We can be talked about as ‘a mass’, and advertisers and politicians…and all kinds of other people are very good at knowing how we behave as a group, but as individuals we are unknowable without face-to-face conversation, and [knowing a person’s] history and so on.” (Stephen Fry)

This made me smile. He is discussing a point that is (for me) quite profound and I’d like to use it to link a few things together1.

A reminder about Complex vs. Complicated

I wrote a post ages ago that explained the difference between a complex and ordered system (ref. ‘It’s complicated…or is it?’)

If you’d really like to delve into this, then I’d recommend looking at the Cynefin sense making framework2.

In short3:

  • An ordered system (whether simple or complicated) is predictable. There are known or knowable cause-and-effect relationships.

There are right answers (which may be self-evident or may require expert diagnosis)

  • A complex system is unpredictable. The elements (for example people) influence and evolve with one another. The past makes sense in retrospect (i.e. it is explainable) BUT this doesn’t lead to foresight because the system, and its environment, are constantly changing.

 It’s not about having answers, it’s about what emerges from changing circumstances and how to respond.

The difference between the two is hugely important.

On working in a system with a purpose of helping people

There are many social systems that are put in place with the intent of helping people with their lives. As an example: most (so called) developed countries have social welfare systems that provide a level of income support. They also help people with their housing needs and gaining employment.

Each of these welfare systems has a choice as to how it sees the people that need their help, and therefore how they choose to design their response.

The ‘average person’ response

The welfare system can look at their population of ‘clients’ and create a host of data about ‘the average’.

They can even break this population down into cohorts and look at more detailed ‘averages’. They might even design ‘personas’ around the ‘average’ per cohort.

But, if they design responses to individuals with reference to these averages, then they are falling into Sherlock Holmes’ stated error – that they believe they can know about an individual from an average.

They would be presuming an ordered (complicated) system and designing answers in response.

Example4:, We can all understand that, on average, it is beneficial for a person to gain employment and thus be able to become independent from the welfare system…so the ‘ordered’ answer must surely be ‘get everyone into work’…so let’s direct all our focus (and targets) to achieving this!

The ‘individual’ response

Each person reliant on a welfare system has a complexity to their life (whether we see this or not).

Expanding upon this, the complexities for many ‘clients’ can be huge – such as:

  • dependents (children, and others that they care for)
  • lack of permanent address and other financial barriers
  • limited education and work experience
  • mental health (incl. depression, anxiety), habits and addictions
  • physical disabilities
  • family violence
  • criminal records
  • history of institutional care
  • …etc.

If those working in the welfare system want to achieve meaningful help, then the starting point is for them to know the client as an individual, and then iteratively work alongside them according to what emerges.

Measurement of success

We would hope that each welfare system has thought about what its purpose is, from a client’s point of view, and that this is the anchor point from which everything else is tethered.

Such a purpose will likely be about helping people towards ‘good’ outcomes (such as independence, safety, …and other dimensions of wellbeing)

A welfare system should want to measure its performance against that purpose.

If I’ve assumed an ordered system (via the ‘average person’ design response) then I will take my ordered answers (in this example ‘getting people into work’) and likely measure things like ‘Number of clients into employment this period’. I might even set targets to (ahem) motivate my staff….

…and I will predictably (though unintentionally) promote dysfunctional behaviour5:

  • A mindset of whose ‘on my books’? (and therefore, who can I get off them)
  • Who can I get into work quickly? (with the reverse effect of leaving the ‘difficult ones’ languishing to one side)
  • What work can I get them into? (as opposed to what will help them succeed)
  • Who needs coaxing/ persuading and what can I use as levers to do this?
  • Who got themselves into work by themselves (i.e. without any help from us)…so that I can ‘count them in my numbers’
  • ….

Attempting to push someone into work might be an incredibly dumb thing to do for that individual (and for those that depend upon them).

The above is not blaming anyone working in such a system. It is to say that these are, sadly, “healthy responses to absurd work” (Herzberg).

To Vector Measurement

If I correctly see that the welfare system is a complex one, then I realise that I need to work at the level of the individual.

The type of measure that fits for a complex system is a vector measure. A reminder from schoolboy maths that a vector has both speed and direction. It is especially used to determine the position of one thing, in relation to another.

I will know the performance of my system if I regularly measure, for each individual, their speed and direction of travel – from where they are now towards, or away from, a better place (as defined by them).

Such a measure causes a total focus on the individual:

  • whether things are working for them or not
  • whether to continue with the current stimuli and perhaps amplify them; or
  • whether to dampen them and work to stimulate new ideas

It’s very likely that there will be a collection of unique needs per individual, and therefore a set of vectors to be monitored (one per need). These may cluster around the various dimensions of wellbeing (see footnote for a wellbeing model6).

Example: My financial wellbeing might be slightly (and temporarily) better off because you pushed me into a job, but my mental wellbeing might be sinking like a stone because it really wasn’t appropriate.

Which leads to…

Measuring over time

Vector measurement shouldn’t be one-off thing. The individual is on a (lifelong) journey. The reference point is continually changing, but the question of ‘better or worse off?’ (or perhaps progressing vs regressing) is a constant.

As such, each person steps from one place to another, sometimes forwards (i.e. towards where they thought they wanted to go), sometime diagonally (to new possibilities that have emerged) and sometimes backwards (requiring reflection and perhaps some helpful interventions).

Playing with a way to visualise such a journey7, it might look something like this:

If we were measuring the performance of a system aimed at helping individuals, we would want:

  • the aggregate of our clients to be going forwards (and most certainly not be stuck and dependent on us); and
  • to spot the individuals who are stuck or, worse, going backwards, so that we can (quickly) help;

Returning to the ‘average person’

Every welfare system says that it wants good outcomes for those that they are tasked with helping. Whether this happens will depend upon how we think this can be achieved.

I contrast:

  • Fighting people into (what we have determined for them as) good outcomes;


  • Dancing8 with people towards what they arrive at as their good outcomes

I hope you can see that if we truly help ‘the individual’ then, on average, people are quite likely to move towards employment (and better mental health and…). But this is a case of ‘cause’ (helping individuals) and ‘effect’ (improving the average).

Conversely, I can ‘badger the non-existent average’ till I’m blue in the face…but it would be the wrong place to work from!

In summary:

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes:

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex intelligent behaviour.

[Complicated] rules and regulations give rise to simple stupid behaviour(Dee Hock)

The simple, clear measure of ‘are you better or worse off (as defined by you)’? will give rise to all sorts of varied, individualised and highly relevant actions and interaction.

The complicated rules around, say, how many people a team is supposed to get into employment this period, what counts as ‘getting employment’, what rules determine who gets the credit, how long does this ‘employment’ need to be sustained to keep the credit,…and so on, will give rise to simple, stupid behaviour.



1. Sources for this post: As is so often the case when I am energised to ‘write it down’ in a post, the ideas within are because of a coming together (at least in my mind) between a few separate things.

The main two for this post are:

Whilst the former is about ‘the individual’ and the latter is (I think) written with respect to, say, an organisation (or bigger system), I see them as complimentary.

Richard Davis’ Chapter 4 ‘Using data’ nicely shows an example of an individual with a set of needs (as defined by them), and how they are doing against each over time.

Dave Snowden’s piece adds to, and broadens, Richard Davis’s work by naming, and clearly articulating, vector measurement.

2. Cynefin: There’s also a useful book called ‘Cynefin: weaving sense-making into the fabric of our world’ by Dave Snowden and friends

3. Sensemaking framework: I have chosen to provide a very brief reminder here. I have omitted the ideas of chaos, disorder, and liminality.

4. Employment as an example: I could have used various examples to make this point. I picked employment after reading an article about a new UK Govt. initiative called ‘The way to work’, with a target to get 500,000 into work.

The article is titled ‘Way to Work Scheme: forcing people into jobs they aren’t suited for has damaging effects’.

The article also links on to a systematic review by University of Glasgow on the research in this area. The abstract notes

“…we found that labour market studies…consistently reported positive impacts for employment [i.e. yes, we can ‘force people into work’] but negative impacts for job quality and stability in the longer term, along with increased transitions to non-employment or economic inactivity. …increased material hardship and health problems. There was also some evidence that sanctions were associated with increased child maltreatment and poorer child well-being.”

5. Dysfunctional behaviour: A reminder that this isn’t a case of ‘bad people’; this is normal people attempting to survive within their system.

6. Wellbeing: Googling the (often referenced) notion of wellbeing shows that there are lots of different (though similar) n-dimensional models of wellbeing ‘out there’.

Using the Te Whare Tapa Whā model, as derived by Sir Mason Durie, four core dimensions of wellbeing are:

  • Taha tinana: Our physical health
  • Taha hinengaro: Our mental and emotional health
  • Taha whānau: Our social wellness (e.g. a sense of connection, belonging, contributing, and being supported)
  • Taha wairua: Our spiritual wellness (g. a sense of purpose and meaning in life/ the degree of peace and harmony in our lives )

Other dimensions that feed into (i.e. will likely affect) these four core wellbeing dimensions include:

  • Our financial/ economic situation (now) & outlook (expected)
    • e.g. access to resources (food, clothing, shelter,…)
  • Our environmental situation – where we live
    • e.g. safe, clean, pleasant, cohesive, with access to facilities
  • Our intellectual situation – what we do (education, work, and leisure)
    • e.g. stimulating/ creative, productive/ useful, learning/ developing/growth, autonomous (self-determining)

7. Visualising the journey: I’m sure that there are lots of people far more skilled than me that could really ‘get into’ how to visualise a person’s journey (and probably have).

The point is to be able to see it, as a vector, moving over time, comparing ‘where I was’ to ‘where I am now’ on some useful dimensions. These could be:

  • a set of needs as identified through actively listening to the person (as per Richard Davis); and/or
  • a set of wellbeing dimensions (as derived from a useful wellbeing model)

 To clarify: This would be the opposite of scoring where the person is at on a goal set by the welfare system that is ‘managing’ them.

A reminder that the former recognises the person’s complexity, whilst the latter assumes an ordered reality…which is not the case.

8. Re. Dancing with people: This phrase might sound flippant – I have no wish to be simplistic about people whose lives are really tough. It comes from the rather nice concept as explained by Miller and Rollnick in their book on Motivational Interviewing.