When you Measure Everything, You Measure Nothing

It’s not data that’s missing. It’s courage.

All decisions are made on the basis of insufficient data. Once you get this idea through your head life becomes a bit scarier—and much easier.

We are always leaning into an uncertain future and anyone who pretends that they are sure of a decision is fooling you and fooling themselves.

Until we truly grok this we are at the mercy of people who feign surety as a negotiation and “leadership” tactic.

While I’m not opposed to a well-placed “we can do this!” speech I also think it’s dangerous to mistake it for truth.

The truth is we don’t know, the truth is we’d like to know, and the truth is we’ll never know for certain how a decision will turn out.

This fundamental human dilemma is the fountainhead of numerous, misguided metrics gathering efforts. We try to beat our uncertainty into submission and bury it under the weight of numbers.

When really all we are doing is covering our asses.

Good Data, Bad Data

I got into some financial trouble a few years ago and on the advice of a friend I started to write down every expenditure I made each day. It felt like I was taking positive action, but really, I was just making myself feel better.

It wasn’t until I added a step: projecting how much money I intended to spend each month that this collecting of data had any meaning.

Most of us need financial data for only one of two reasons. Either to modify our behavior at the point of sale answering the question “can I afford this?” or, to track our long term performance answering questions like “what’s my net worth?” or “am I on target for retirement?”

This is what separates a useful metric from a useless metric. A useful metric answers an important question and gives us a basis for making better decisions at the time we are making the decision.

Good data helps us make better decisions, bad data muddies the playing field and soothes our conscience saying in effect “well, at least I’m doing something.”

Data is Not a Substitute for Courage

“Courage” is a word we don’t hear enough in business and in life. But the truth is we need a substantial amount of it to engage fully in either.

What I mean by courage is a willingness to go all-in and follow a course of action. To drop all equivocation and be willing to follow a specific path for better or worse. This doesn’t mean you can’t take corrective action or make a new decision later based on the data generated by the current course of action.

It does mean that you have to commit to the current plan.

A lack of courage manifests in life when we don’t ask for what we want or dream big enough. And it manifests in business in decisions that never quite get made, requests that aren’t clear and CYA processes like putting a “cover sheet on your TPS report.”

The Most Dangerous Words a Leader Can Use

Working in organizational change like I do I frequently hear leaders ask for assurances that a plan will work. “Prove it” they say requesting white papers, data sheets, and case studies.

I’m happy enough to provide these, they tell a good story, but it’s not usually data that’s missing. It’s courage.

Saying “prove it” puts the onus on someone else and preemptively transfers blame.

Saying “prove it” sounds like hard-nosed wisdom but really it’s a bully’s tactic born out of weakness and fear.

The courageous leader knows the data will alway be insufficient, gathers as much of it as they can in a defined—and short—time period and then makes the call.

Make the Call

Next time you are faced with a stressful decision give yourself a time limit. Tell yourself that you’ll make the call by a certain time on a certain day. Make the time horizon shorter than you are comfortable with—this will help focus your mind.

Then gather data, talk to people, ask questions to your heart’s content.

And when the time comes make the call. You’ll most likely feel a bit nauseous when you do. This is good. That’s what being a leader feels like.

Bob GowerFaster, Efficiency