“We should always bear in mind that numbers represent a simplification of reality.”
Kenneth E. Boulding
Numbers in business.
Numbers are everywhere. In every nook & cranny, in every drawer and in every meeting.
Numbers is a full time job … analyzing research, spreadsheets, hell, just thinking about all the numbers that overwhelm you in the everyday standard operating procedures in business can give you a headache.
And that headache is mostly created by counting everything … not just counting what counts.
I wrote a long time ago that counting something doesn’t mean it counts.
To be clear. What counts is what the numbers say, as in, what do they express?
Numbers, more often than not, are simply directional signs toward truth. In other words, rarely do numbers tell the truth in their simplicity. Okay. They rarely tell the whole truth. And they are never a substitute for judgement.
But they are also the one tangible thing even a useless idiot can pull out to try and convince everyone they are smart & useful.
Now. As a corollary to numbers.
Theories in business.
Theories are everywhere. In every nook & cranny, in every drawer and in every meeting.
Theories is a full time job … nudging, blinking, decision modeling, stage gate, Gartner Hype, consumer lifecycle, hell, just the theories that are discussed in random conversations can overwhelm you in the everyday standard operating procedures in business. Theories tend to be the weapon of choice for those who are ‘number – challenged.’
This all means that while we often seem to give lip service to ‘business instincts’ more often than not it is someone who has figured out how to manipulate and articulate numbers who drives the ultimate decisions most businesses make.
That said. I sometimes fear, on occasion, we are crafting a generation of business people who view numbers as the answer for everything. Yeah. I just suggested that despite the fact I have highlighted the millions of management theory business books sold on a monthly basis that people gobble up looking for the secret to success.
This is because numbers are sly. Tricky in fact. Pick up any number of the inane business books available and almost all of them will have to do with some secret thinking formula, or ingredient, for business success. All of that crap typically falls under the fantasy heading of “management theory.” And all this theory wafts thru the hallways of business management seeking to serve up the ‘theory du jour.’
Uh oh. The business truth is that theory sells, but numbers runs the reality of business. Theory discusses long term strategy and numbers tend to dictate short term decisions and actions <and we are clearly in a short term management world these days>. This means that millions of books sold, thousands of meetings discussing how to implement the theoretical ‘secret to success’ and the entire house of cards comes crashing down because some number cruncher wonk starts shouting out some ‘reality-based tactic model’ using numbers.
Look. I am certainly not defending business books & management theory.
“Between them, Taylor and Mayo carved up the world of management theory. According to my scientific sampling, you can save yourself from reading about 99 percent of all the management literature once you master this dialectic between rationalists and humanists.
The Taylorite rationalist says: Be efficient!
The Mayo-ist humanist replies: Hey, these are people we’re talking about!
And the debate goes on. Ultimately, it’s just another installment in the ongoing saga of reason and passion, of the individual and the group. The tragedy, for those who value their reading time, is that Rousseau and Shakespeare said it all much, much better.”
Most management theory is useless drivel.
To be sure. Accounting, statistical analysis, results monitoring and forecasting, decision modeling, and any numbers based knowledge is quite handy in building the foundation to learning how to successfully run and manage a business.
To be sure. Management theory, or the thinking that makes it up, is quite handy in building the strategic framework on how to implement a business strategy.
But most of the good business shit is learned on the job. And by ‘good business shit’ I mean both theory and numbers.
I cannot tell you how many meetings I have sat in where someone has stood up in front of the room with some modeling/management theory analysis with whizbang charts and quadrants and decision trees … only to have it all chopped down and shredded by someone in the audience who throws in a poisonous dose of reality.
I cannot tell you how many meetings I have sat in where someone has stood up in front of the room with snappy little charts with numbers highlighted <and the mind-numbing graphs to explain the wonderful painless short summary numbers pages> … only to have it all zeroed out by someone in the audience who throws in a poisonous dose of reality.
I don’t care if it is theory or numbers, more often than not they reflect some generic bland perspective on some solutions offered. But they don’t offer the thinking which can inevitably lead you away from some simplistic formula solution to a more insightful nuanced perspective on what to do next.
Experienced based instincts.
They are becoming the 3 Lost Wonders of the Business World. As Ogilvy once said theory & numbers are becoming the lamp posts the drunkards lean on for support rather than using them for illumination.
“I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.”
The business world is in a very odd place. Management theory and theoretical business crap <usually sold under the guise of some ‘important strategic tactical way of thinking about some business issue’> is pervasive throughout business. It is because everyone is seeking some ‘how to’ secret to unlock … uhm … better numbers.
This means at exactly the same time as everyone is devouring the new theory du jour they are huddled over numbers using them like a Ouija board asking them to tell them what to do next.
Management theory doesn’t work that way.
Shit. Numbers do not work that way.
Suffice it to say <this may be a Business Truth> that any management theory you are thinking of implementing as well as any numbers driven decision you are thinking of implementing, you should always bear in mind that they represent a simplification of reality.”
And business reality is never a simplification of anything.