Posts from Other Sites

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Numbers have Issues

Over my career I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with numbers. As a marketing analyst early on, I loved finding patterns in data and being able to test what those patterns meant. As a Lean and Agile practitioner, I sometimes struggle with the ways that targets can be misused and drive towards unintended outcomes.

Below are some thoughts and suggestions for using numbers wisely. However, just like the story about the Blind men and the Elephant my observations are shaped by my experiences so far and are thus limited. To quote from Wikipedia ‘In various versions of the tale, a group of blind men (or men in the dark) touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.’

Numbers are great…

It’s great when we can see ways to meet a target and watch the numbers build day by day or week by week. When this happens, we feel that something is being achieved.

Numbers have issues…

It’s not so great when it is hard to see how a target can be met… and there are other problems with numbers and targets such as…

  • Targets can be gamed so that it looks like a good job is being done
  •  We can get so caught up in achieving a target number, that we overlook opportunities to achieve much better outcomes. We could be aiming for a target of 7 and miss chances to meet 20 or 50 or 100 – ‘Because any number is a  limit, and perfection doesn’t have limits’ – ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘ by Richard Bach (When you have a spare 45 minutes or so, it is well worth reading as an analogy for continuous improvement activities)
  • Numbers focus our attention – in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow‘, Daniel Kahneman mentions anchoring as a priming effect where any number we have recently come across can influence our subsequent numerical answers. (Another great book, this one for understanding the benefits and caveats of our thought processes)

It’s tempting to suggest that we shouldn’t use numbers because they are too open to interpretation and misuse – and so are many other tools that we find useful. So let’s accept that we must use them and be forewarned about some pitfalls.

Use Numbers Freely when

  • Measuring physical items such as lengths of timber
  • Monitoring of trends in leading or lagging indicators
  • Counting items and activities that can objectively be observed (these are safe to use as targets – but can also restrict our ambitions)

Use Numbers with Care When

  • Choosing targets for leading or lagging indicators (indicators can be better used for monitoring purposes rather than targets)
  • There is ambiguity about what or why something is being measured – the ambiguity can allow for gaming behaviour to occur
  • Making decisions – we cannot remove our biases, however, we can be aware of them and use strategies to allow for their existence

In summary and back to the story about the blind men and the elephant, numbers can many different things and are thus open to misinterpretation. So if we find ourselves strongly disagreeing with others about what numbers mean, we should use that as a signal to expand our conversations and explore if we are actually speaking about the same thing and not just different views of that thing.


Words Have Issues Too

Following my last post about numbers having issues, here are some similar thoughts about issues with words.

Words are great…

Words are wonderful things – they allow me to write this post for example. I love the fact that I can read texts that were written centuries, decades, years or days ago and learn something new or what people were thinking about.

When we have agreement on the meanings of words, workshops and discussions can focus on solving problems and creating new ideas. We can get a lot communicated in a very short time and achieve great things.

Words have issues…

Words are not so wonderful when we misuse them or disagree about their meanings…

  • I remember a strong conversation I had once where we were disagreeing about a minor thing – after about 30 minutes, we stopped to check what we meant by certain terms and found that we were actually in agreement about the concept – we simply had not aligned our definitions of the words we were using.
  • Offensive words – this can be tricky especially when we are working across different cultural/age groups – some words that were in common use last century can be incredibly offensive. Another example, from living in a multi-lingual environment, is when an innocent word in one language can sound very much like an offensive word in another language.
  • Tone and body language – most of the intent in communication is conveyed by our body language and tone. When I worked as an outbound telemarketer, I was taught the importance of smiling when speaking to our Customers even though they could not see me. The smiling influenced the way I spoke so that I could come across as my friendly self. This was especially important towards the end of a shift – after several hours it was easy to become more lethargic and monotone, remembering to smile at that point helped me a lot – and made me feel happier also.

It’s important to remember that the meaning of words can change very quickly. An extreme event with worldwide publicity can make a very common word into a highly politicised one virtually overnight. The OED article about the ‘gate’ suffix makes an interesting read about this topic.

Use Words Freely when

  • The definitions and meanings of the words are very clear and commonly understood.
  • We are communicating with people that we know very well or with whom we have discussed the meanings of terminology that we are using.

Use Words with Care When

  • Your reasonable conversation starts to become a disagreement, it might be prudent to pause the conversation and check definitions or terminology.
  • There have been world events that cause the words we are using to mean something very different now.
  • You are feeling tired or upset – it is easy for normal language to come across as quite harsh if these feelings get expressed in your body language or tone.
  • Email, of course is the obvious area where care is required. Brevity or light-heartedness on your part can easily be misread.

In summary, the level of disagreement about definitions of words sometimes causes me to wonder why we bother with them – both words and numbers can be frustrating, but we do need to use them. Checking definitions and terminology is a great foundation for our conversations.