Clean Thinking

A little mixed up: surrogation bias

To round out this week’s series of posts about typical biases in the work place and in business in general that I’ve most observed, I’ll talk about a doozy that be mysteriously frustrating: surrogation bias.

It’s defined as losing sight of the strategy that a metric is intended to measure, and acting as though the metrics themselves are what’s important.


I have a story for you.

Once upon a time, the leadership of an organization had a company-wide strategic initiative to fill gaps in company SOPs. The organization was growing (hooray!), and there were many more hands in various projects, and people started doing things their own way, the best way they knew how. This wasn’t bad, but to prevent escalation to “bad” in the future, leadership wanted documentation of best practices and protocols.

This corporate goal was integrated into business unit planning and individual employee goals/reviews – reviews, by the way, that impacted promotion and comp decisions at the end of the year.

One of the company’s business units already had SOP mastery because SOPs were the way they did their jobs and were accountable to clients from the very beginning. So while the other business units were working on developing consistent and reliable documentation for the first time, this one business unit was a little confused about what individuals should be doing to fulfill requirements mandated by leadership.

What did happen: The manager of this business unit asked their staff to “redo” and “revise” and “improve” existing SOPs, taking them away from other urgent and important work. Employees were annoyed, frustrated, and confused, but forged ahead because to not do the work might mean they could kiss a bonus goodbye when review time came.

What should have happened: A talk with leadership to evaluate alternate ways of supporting the company’s strategic mission but not having to do exactly what leadership instructed, since the instruction applied more readily to other, SOP-less business units.


This is surrogation: looking at a metric and saying, “We must get that done!” at the expense of the overall vision. The more advanced business unit could have explored providing SOP integration and consistency across business units, providing a masterclass to the other business units to help them be more efficient in achieving their goal, or redirected their efforts to other tangible ROI for the company.

Be careful that you are not putting the metrics themselves ahead of the strategic intent.

Come on! Tell us what you're thinking.

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