Sabbatical postcard – lies, damned lies and statistics v2.0

ThinkEvans hit the key for coffeeWhat the numbers really say is an issue at least as old as published statistics themselves, but one finding a renaissance in the world of the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016: ‘post-truth’.*

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a commercial organisation knows, for example, that it is possible to have both massive growth in your sales numbers and a declining market share.  All it takes is for the firm to be in a growing market, meaning it can still lag behind the market’s overall growth rate even when it is going gangbusters – because others are going more so!

Not a few firms have fallen foul of the partial truth – sales are up, hooray! – by not enquiring about the rest of the picture – how much are sales up for the whole market?  And, I hear the accountants say, sales are different from profits so all that may be unprofitable growth anyhow – cue the cautionary tale about the long list of teams who got it wrong by thinking that they could somehow bank market share, only to churn heroic sales volumes and still have nothing much of anything to bank.

Our friends in nonprofits face similar struggles to report fairly the beneficial impact of the services they provide.  They need to engender further support through positive results, but without cutting the ground from under their own feet – perhaps by a too positive report suggesting the problem has thus been solved.

Here our hats are off to the prize-winning effort by the chappie from the UN who managed to report a vast improvement in deliveries of humanitarian aid in Syria – now reaching an average of 21% of those in need in 2016 as opposed to 1% in 2015 – framed by comments that were a polite but unmistakeable hint that there was just 80% of those in need still to be reached by the UN!

Runner up and receiving the award for best effort on ‘virtue in necessity’?  The team at Care International – their recent report on the ’10 most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2016′ was an imaginative approach based on a robust methodology and sound data collection.  Making a virtue out of the necessity of confronting the issues, the report included the observations:

Journalists … have a responsibility, given that the media has the power to set agendas, hold politicians accountable and help raise crucial funds to deliver aid.
This ranking is not meant to compare misery and suffering and place them on a scale; rather, each crisis and each human fate is unique and deserves all the support we can give [but these] have been neglected or eclipsed by others grabbing the world’s attention.
Each one of them is one too many.

Any decision maker worth their salt must be skilled in understanding and interpreting information – facts, truth, lies, damned lies and statistics – and there is just no substitute for doing your own homework on this.  Sure, get all the advice you want, but do your own thinking – in fact, get some advice that you don’t want and see if your thinking holds up to the test that contrary advice provides.

In the end, if we have any pretence to decision makers being accountable, this should include that they stand or fall on the ‘facts’ that they rely on in making their decisions – no matter whether that is ‘truth’, ‘post-truth’,’alternative truth’ or anything else.

So the task that persists for us all is to keep in mind the place of outcomes in accountability, and not let decision makers off the hook for that.  Nor give up leading by example to: embrace thoughtful dissent in the boardroom; welcome diverse and contrary views in any workplace that are expressed appropriately with maturity, respect, and actual information; and show self-discipline in sorting through an abundance of informational dross to find the nuggets of gold on which to rightly rely in our decisions.



*The OED says this is ‘an adjective defined as relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.