You and I place a lot of attention on numbers.
You could say everything we do, how we live, how we choose to be governed, is based on numbers.
But are they the ‘right’ numbers?
You see, you can do pretty much anything with numbers.
I used to know quite well two Economists, professors at neighbouring Universities in the North West. Give them the same set of numbers and they’d manipulate, sorry ‘model’, them in different ways coming up with two completely opposing conclusions and recommendations.
It was of course what they were paid to do, one as advisor to the Conservative Party and the other to Labour.
We can make numbers prove or disprove anything we like.
But what are numbers?
Finite numbers are a device we have created to help get our heads around how the world works. When we go beyond into the infinite, most people lose the plot.
I was never that good at maths, just scraped a pass at O Level. Sure I could manage addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and even a little algebra and geometry but when it came to calculus, that’s where my brain said noooo!
I failed statistics in my MBA exams, even though we were allowed to take in notes – had to upgrade them to get through it on the second attempt.
‘Lies, damned lies and statistics’ attributed to Sir Charles Dilke in 1891 and popularised by Mark Twain is where that starts. I’d add a 4th level of heinous lie – ‘Government statistics’ – which usually bear no relation to facts whatsoever! (Or sometimes even the actual numbers)
As an information consultant in the rail industry in the 90’s my contracts were usually about helping interpret the mass of data on the railways into information that board level management could use – they’d lost faith in the interpretations of the numbers by middle management as being something they though the top levels wanted to hear.
Understand now that this isn’t about ‘lying’ it’s about ‘interpretation’.
Or in my language manipulating the figures to prove or make a point.
But there’s another aspect to this which is how your mind interprets the numbers.
Marisa Peer says that ‘your mind only does what it thinks you want it to do’ which is a variation on ‘you get what you think about’.
There is a philosophy in sales of ‘go for no’ – the belief that the more ‘no’ responses you get, the closer you’ll be to the ‘yes’, so count the ‘no’ responses and forget about the ‘yes’.
What does that do? Well you mind then thinks you want people to say No – and that’s just what happens.
This is based on the entirely false ‘Law of Averages’ I’ve discussed in an earlier insight.
It is good though to measure our results, as it is to keep track of our accounts.
Not for the sake of the numbers but to make sure we are taking the right actions to improve our results.
Trouble is too mane people just get lost in the magic of the numbers which can often lead to counter productive decisions or the wrong messages going out.
Back in the late 90s there were three major rail crashes and 42 people were killed. I wasn’t personal involved in the internal enquiries but our team of consultants were handed the brief that came out of it.
So what were the numbers they focussed on?
Not the total numbers of people travelling on trains on those days, not the total number of people on those particular trains, not the numbers of people who lived in the towns the trains departed from but purely an simple the numbers of people who died purely and simply because they were on those particular trains.
In all three cases the root causes were down to miscommunication between departments and those departments having different budgets and agendas.
We recommended a coherent organisation and alignment with better methods of information transfer and different forms of information.
Since then there have been no similar incidents on the UK railway system
Options like reducing the numbers on the trains, stopping people in the departure towns using the trains, shutting down the railway while new systems were installed, having fewer trains, or anything else that would have impacted the travelling public and the businesses involved were not even considered.
Those numbers would not have solved the problem, only complicated it beyond measure.
There was only one number to think about – 42
The problem, once discovered, was stopped in its tracks.
Maybe there’s a lesson here.