Seduction by the Numbers

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There’s an old joke about the manager who was hiring an accountant. The manager asked each candidate the same question, “How much is two and two?” The accountant who got the job was the one who answered: “What do you want it to be?”

That’s one danger of numbers; you can make them say what you want them to say. But it’s not the biggest danger of concentrating on the numbers of business.

I’ve been reading a lot about data-driven decision making, AI, and deep learning. I worry the numbers will mesmerize us and we’ll risk losing our humanity. We refer to success as “making our numbers.” We don’t talk as much about building relationships.

That scares me. If we concentrate on “the numbers” and making them, we’re likely to forget about the people. It’s too easy to concentrate on the part of leadership where you accomplish the mission and ignore the part about caring for the people. But that doesn’t mean it’s the numbers that are the problem.

I’m in favor of gathering good data and solid evidence, and using them to make decisions. We should nail down our facts as best we can and become ruthlessly disciplined about how we evaluate them. But I worry we will crunch our numbers, both solid and suspect, into a fine dust that will choke off our stories and blind us to what real success is.

One joy of my life is the time I get to spend with a retired executive I love and respect. I’ve listened to his stories about his successful career. I don’t remember him mentioning any numbers.

I’ve listened to people who knew him as a manger and executive. They tell stories about his prescience (“someday there will be a computer on every desk”) and his business sense (opening markets in Asia no one thought were worth it). They tell how he was kind to this person, patient with another, gave one a second chance, and pushed another hard to improve.

No one mentions numbers, even though he “made his numbers” consistently and often spectacularly. In the end making your numbers don’t matter as much as making good relationships.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Pay attention to your numbers. Make your numbers. Remember that in the end the true measure of your life will involve people and stories.

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