Don’t let bad numbers fail your good project

Innovative people usually fail. Yes, with persistence, innovators in technology, business and government also succeed – and there is plenty evidence to prove both points. So how do we measure new ideas with old numbers?

First, some examples: Did you know that Steve Jobs was fired by Apple?

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln failed in the military, failed in business and failed as a politician many times – losing numerous elections prior to becoming President of the United States.

Winston Churchill did very poorly in school and some say he failed sixth grade. He also failed to be elected to public office multiple times before he became Prime Minister in the United Kingdom.

The list of other great men and women who failed miserably goes on and on – Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Lucille Ball and many more. By some accounts, these people almost didn’t get that next chance they needed, but thank God they got another chance.

Project Failures

What about projects where the initial results pointed business in a different direction?

The Post-it note or “yellow sticky” was born from a failed glue project. 

The concept of a Channel Tunnel between France and England was initially laughed at by most government officials, but discussions continued for over a hundred years before the tunnel was finally built.

Bluetooth almost didn’t happen. Here’s a quote from an EE article on Bluetooth. “They felt it was unheard of to ‘give away IP’ and the IBM lawyers gave an absolute no to signing. Luckily, they had an insightful VP that did it anyway!”

When the Numbers Say Stop

Perhaps you’re thinking, “OK, these were great people and motivational project stories, but what does this have to do with metrics and/or measuring success in government and business?” Quite a bit, I think.

This is my third and final blog urging another look at how numbers dictate our definition of success in the workplace. Metrics are essential, but are we sure we really understand the people and processes behind the numbers. Are the statistics we rely on honestly telling us what we think? What are some practical ways we can update and validate our measurements?

By Dan Lohrmann

My first blog in this series described how numbers have become the all-encompassing wisdom in business, technology, government and sports. The second blog highlighted the Tim Tebow story from the sports-world as a warning that perhaps certain metrics receive too much attention at the expense of others. I ask the reader to consider if their old measurements can truly predict innovation and future success.

So now we are moving on to practical application. In the 21st Century, how can we be forward looking as we examine data and trends?

We are faced with two (seemingly opposite) truths regarding numbers. On the one end, Thomas Edison said, “Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

On the other side, we’ve been told again and again to pull the plug faster in failing situations. Good management knows when to cancel bad projects or remove unproductive staff. We are taught in management 101 that when the numbers go red for ‘x’ cycles in a row, the project (or project manager) must go.

Pragmatic Action Steps

So what pragmatic actions steps can business and government technology leaders take away from these examples of persevering, innovative people? How can we look at the numbers and see the wider story. Is there a way to apply the lessons from Tebow-mania to your business?

1)  Regularly reexamine your metrics. This means look at more than the numbers in the current report. Ask if the assumptions, underlying measurement processes and overall scorecard still mean what you think they mean. Ask: Do these measurements tell the right  story?

The challenge this poses is that too many changes prevents appropriate comparisons to last month's or last quarter's dashboard. Still, we must ask if we are stuck in the past with summary numbers that don't tell the entire (or most significant) story.

For example, looking at the 2011-2012 NFL season,

Tebow’s strengths didn’t show up using traditional QB metrics. But his overall value showed up in many other ways. Few doubt that Denver won more games and made more money because of Tebow. If you just reported Tebow's overall passing stats as compared to other NFL QBs, you don't get Tebow-mania.

Ask your business team: Are the metrics we are using truly telling us what is most important? Are we measuring the right things or just the items that make us look good against our competition? Perhaps all-encompassing numbers are masking more opportunities or problems.

2)  Measure innovation and creativity differently. New innovative opportunities may present themselves “outside the box” of traditional numbers. Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter are all recognized innovators today, but their early successes didn’t show up using traditional measures. Also, Social media uses different measures of success.

Gartner, Forrester and others offer new ways to measure innovation. But whatever approach you use, enterprises need a mix of traditional and new metrics.

Look for areas where your competitors and critics agree. Is there a new third way available? When commenting on the Bluetooth article listed above, one person wrote: "The success of Bluetooth is that it's become a universal standard, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that no-one owns it." That project only happened when new measures were used to define success. 

In Tebow’s win over Pittsburgh in the playoffs, he broke NFL playoff records while completing only 48% of his passes. And yet, a focus on one or two metrics masks that success story. 

3)  Character is hard to measure, but character matters – even in reporting results. Trustworthy numbers, including the process by which the numbers were obtained as well as the people reporting the numbers, are essential.

Banking has long been known as the first place to look for a model regarding hard, meaningful numbers. But recent scandals are calling years of numbers and measurements into question.  

Could your recent or future numbers be tainted in any way by ethics violations or manipulation of numbers? If all we measure is a few specific numbers, there is a natural tendency to improve those numbers at the expense of the wider business process. This truth was addressed years ago in a paper by Arthur M. Schneiderman entitled “why balance scorecards fail.” As many in the financial industry have discovered, the bottom line business numbers will eventually come out - even if it takes years to uncover.

Tebow’s success on and off the field demonstrates the potential value of his leadership and “off the chart intangibles.”  Time will tell whether this trend will continue, but Tebow-mania is at least partially the result society’s perception that Tim Tebow is honest, trustworthy and has impeccable character. Even his fiercest critics admit that Tebow is trustworthy and a great leader and teammate. In a modern sports world with many examples of arrested players and doping scandals, this character trait stands out in society. People want to cheer for someone they also admire.  

As explained in the last blog, criticism of Tebow’s passing numbers have actually increased his marketability to the wider society. An open, honest, positive approach to critics has made Tebow more popular. Businesses can learn from Tebow’s marketing and PR capabilities.

In conclusion, American humorist Evan Esar once said that the definition of statistics is: “The science of producing unreliable facts from reliable figures.”

Let’s make sure that our numbers are relevant, innovative and true. 

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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