Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Statistics can lead to bad management

It's strange that I have so much difficulty explaining to people why statistics are dangerous. I wonder whether this has anything to do with how many of them we're bombarded with through all of the different news media every day; "people are now living to 70 years old", "one in three marriages is ending in divorce", "eating burnt toast will increase your cancer risk by 50%". I made 63% of those up by the way.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love Excel, I studied accounting at University, and at almost every turn I like to crunch numbers and see what happens. However, with every number I see, and every spreadsheet I write, the numbers are there simply to provoke a discussion to find out what is happening in reality. I firmly believe that reality is held in the heads of the people affected by what you're measuring, and not in a set of numbers determined from whatever data was available to you.

I hear the sceptics out there saying that numbers are much more reliable than people's opinion, that you can't categorise opinions without numbers, and anyway, numbers do describe things. Well do they, really? I mean, "how many apples do I have on the table?", Oh, the answer is five. Excellent, we have a number that describes the number of apples on the table. Now try to make a decision, say, how many apples to take from the table and eat for lunch. You'll probably ask for some more numbers such as how many more days there are in the week or how many other people want an apple, but you'll be convinced that you can still use those numbers for the decision. Well, on paper (a very tiny bit) you might be right, but in reality life is much more complex. How ripe are the apples? Are some of the apples off? Do you like all of the variety of apples available on the table? Do you even like apples?

I see numbers as an approximation of real life. In Plato's Allegory of the Cave, he considers a scenario where slaves are locked up in a cave and unable to look anywhere except the back wall of the cave. On that wall are cast the shadows of the events and people happening outside the cave. The slaves can't see the real people outside the cave because they cannot turn their heads. If they were able to turn around, then they would see that the shadows were simply dull, flat representations of reality, and the true reality was rich in colour, depth and detail. It strikes me that people relying on statistics to describe real life are doing something similar. I don't want to make decisions based on shadows, I want to turn my head and see the real people, the real events, and then I'll make my decisions.

Some of you still waivering? Still want your statistics to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling when you point to a chart on a wall? Then consider this. Not only are we relying on statistics that are mere analogies of real life, but we're then performing agreggation on those statistics to reduce them even further to a single figure! I regularly see averages talked about at work. Averages are, in truth, an abomination of statistics if you intend to make any real decisions. What does an average of anything actually tell you? Since I know you all like charts so much, take a look at the chart on the right. This would provide you with the same average for all three series of data. Imagine what potential mistakes could be made by relying on the average.

Ok, the number crunchers amoung you would say that you just need standard deviation as well as the average. Well I would then point out that this is simply two dimensional and represents just a single set of numbers. We've already explained that a single set of numbers is misleading, so we'd need more numbers. Now you're into your multi-dimensional statistics. After three dimensions the graphs are going to get a bit tricky so we abandon them. Now we've lost a visual representation and are looking are reams of numbers, cross referenced and inter-linked. Stop! Surely you could have saved yourself a lot of trouble and got the people affected by whatever it is you want to measure, put them in a (metaphorical) room, and asked them. That includes customers. It doesn't need to be everyone, just a few of them. You even get to use statistics to choose the sample if you need to, that'll give your Excel fingers something to play with.

In all seriousness, statistics are a vital part of business, but they are only a very small part of management. People are way too complicated to be defined by a few numbers, and whilst you're looking at those numbers, those shadows of reality, you may miss the really important detail that could make the difference between an OK decision and a great decision. If all it would take is to ask a few questions, listen to a few people and then have a discussion, what are you afraid of?

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Small problems cause unhappiness

When I lived in London, many moons ago, I was at a pub with my (then) girlfriend and having a chat with one of her friends about life, when he handed over to me a small, framed, ink blot painting and told me it was a gift for me.

On the back of the frame were two potential titles; the first "can I set fire to your poodle missus?" and the second "A voyage into the multidimensional integrity of nonduality (man)". He signed off in what I think is an Indian script, but I can't help thinking that it looks quite a lot like a boy's graffiti of breasts.

I have to confess I was just a little bit confused, and wondered how many of these things he carried around for just such an occasion. I was all for writing this guy off as a fruit loop or an artist (it's sometimes a fine line), when he said "the small problems eat away at you every day. You have to fix them quickly". He could see my slightly blank look and explained how he had a squeaky floorboard, and every day he could hear this little squeak when he walked through the corridor. Each time that squeak happened there was just enough to be heard, to cut through into his consciousness and, for a brief flash of a moment, remind him that there was something that needed to be fixed and he was too lazy to fix it, and then it was gone. Never enough of an impact to actually fix the squeak, but just enough to make sure he knew there was something he hadn't done. He told me that I we needed to recognise how these little things can have big effects on how we feel, but that the effect is slow to build up and hard to spot. That we need to see these little problems for what they are; big problems waiting to grow, and we should fix them as soon as we see them.

I've never forgotten this advice because it seems to ring true so often. I think that this advice is important for us individuals living our own lives at home, but imagine scaling this up to your company. Imagine these little problems that exist, impacting 10, 50, or 100 people every day. Think of all the hard won happiness that is being erroded by these drip feeds of unhappiness. The little problems can be any number of things; the hot water tap not working, cleaners not cleaning desks properly, or even an individual trying just a little less hard than those around them. None of these things may appear major to you, and none or them may appear serious enough to need fixing. However, try to imagine them multiplied by the number of people affected and the number of times they are affected and imagine it all happened at the same time on the same day to the same person. That should give you an idea of how much happiness you're losing. When you think about how hard you worked to get that happiness in the first place, maybe you'll think harder about fixing the problem.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Management philosophy carnival (April '09 edition)

Hi, and welcome to the April edition of the Manage A Smile blog carnival on management philosophy. I've got some great posts for you to read this month, although I have cheated slightly as I found a couple of great posts from 2007 and snuck them in.

I hope these posts help you along the path of enlightened management, or at least give you something to think about.

I'll start with the first of two posts from the Zealise blog in March. This article is about the benefits of being able to let go.

The second post on Zealise is a wise word on company principles. If you read this and think it's something you should be doing, then pop over to my manifesto for some ready-made people centric principles to get you started.

That last post linked to a previous contributor to the carnival at the Slow Leadership blog. Now, if even governments have decided that they need to focus more on people than profits, isn't it time you did?

It's a shame that this next blog is no longer updated. I managed to stumble across it on a link from Positive sharing (see inspiration list), and I couldn't leave them out even though they're old.

This last post was at least genuinely published in March, so I feel a little less bad. If you set goals, then have you considered all of the effects? They may not all be good.

I've saved one of the best 'til last. If you're not delegating work as a manager, then crikey. Read this now!

In case you're new to this blog or haven't kept up with life at Manage A Smile, then this March I posted on the following:

Happiness needs process, or just because I care about you being happy, doesn't mean that you don't use flow charts any more:

Ouch. This on hit a nerve, but I still stand my the idea that sacking people may be necessary in order to create happiness at work:

I love to recruit, it makes me feel like a football manager:

The first of two posts that mention poetry. I fear this may dent my credibility with some parts of the audience. I refer those people to my previous analogy of football manager:

That's it for this month's carnival. I hope you find these articles as useful as I did. I look forward to hearing any comments or suggestions for other bloggers.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The burden of change

There are often times when I trip and stumble along the path of the manifesto. Sometimes so much so that I wish I could get off the path and hide in the dark forests of stagnation and systemic discontent. There are times where my ego won't accept another's mistakes on my shoulders without saying it's so, times when I'm unable to absorb personal criticism and turn it to constructive advantage, and times where I allow the burden of other work to brush aside the pillars of manifesto thinking.

Whenever the melancholy from this difficult task looks to be winning the battle for my soul, I have to dig deep and re-find my conviction that the change I'm trying to make is a change that ultimately benefits everyone. I have to try to suppress the all too dominant ego and to absorb criticism, ridicule and blame, because I know that these are simply the pressures that have built up through neglect, and which burst free from the first outlet provided to them.

I've recently begun to contemplate whether any manager can have both the necessary emotional control to remain calm in all situations and also the emotional vigour to promote the cause of change. I know that I struggle continually to remain neutral in the face of criticism without losing the energy that created the need for change in the first place. In fact, I'd be ashamed to list the number of times I've told myself to just give up fighting for the manifesto because I've taken a hit or two.

As I considered what sort of person it would require, the words of the classic poem by Rudyard Kipling came to mind. I've always remembered the first two lines but that's about it. I looked up the poem and was shocked to find that the first two verses travelled so closely to the life of a manifesto manager that it could almost be a motivational sermon printed on the back of the managers' guide to manifesto life.

Here are the first two versus:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

Does this person exist? Can this person exist? I know that I wish a thousand times over that this person was me, and maybe if it was then the manifesto would be stronger and I would be a better manager. However, on the other hand, it could also be possible that the only way to be this person is to travel the journey of a manifesto manager, to be crushed almost flat by the pressure of failure and doubt only to pick yourself back up to take another step forwards. Maybe it's the journey towards this ultimately impossible goal that is the true purpose of the manifesto, and the resulting changes within the manifesto managers are the rewards.

Some say it's better to journey in hope than to arrive at a destination and if, after all, the journey turned me into a better manager with happier teams, then the scars picked up along the way will all have been worth while.