A meeting among some colleagues ran long, so that one of our cohort had to rush through the last few slides of his presentation — a look at marketing and forecast plans. It all sounds very dull, I’m sure, but these are the quotidian details on which we build our work, indeed our futures. I’m sure that everyone working in an organization of any size has had a similar experience. One of the points he had to rush over was this: “The numbers don’t lie.”
The context was the data on which we base our plans for the coming year, the data we use to justify our message, our products, our fees to customers, and from that the income we may expect, the growth we may forecast, the progress we may anticipate.
Because he had to rush through that slide I began to think it through on my own, and a later discussion with him confirmed much of what I supposed: the facts we have available may be helpful to our plans, or not, but those are the facts we must address. If we want to feel confident about our futures, we have to be confident about the way we conduct our work and the way we present our results.
More pointedly, we can lie to ourselves about our circumstances, our prospects, and our intentions — and in doing that we may lie to others — but unless we work to alter the facts we cannot impose some result that is not justified.
This is all very basic understanding, “common sense” in the parlance of the past, and yet I often wonder if we have arrived at a moment in time when there is so much information available, and available so easily, and so cheaply, that we succumb to the temptation to select the most congenial facts, and ignore the rest that might make our immediate task more difficult. Does it make us less appreciative of the truth? Does that account for organizations failing to meet projected targets, admitting past errors in recordkeeping, paying liability claims? Each case has its own causes, I am sure, but poor judgment is the oldest of human deficiencies.
Just a day or two after that meet meeting e-mail arrived, pitching a story idea. The headline: “Numbers do lie!” Despite the seeming contradiction, the point being argued there was that individuals responsible for making decisions cannot allow themselves to be persuaded by selective use of data. You or I may not be liars, but if we let the numbers do our lying is there much difference in effect?
This began to clear away the disquieting sense I had after my first journey through this maze: Where can we draw the line separating the responsibilities of organizations from the responsibilities of individuals? This is a significant question, and not only because organizations, manufacturers and others, rely ever more heavily on the qualities of individuals to meet their goals. Of course, they do, because information and technology are so widely available that, increasingly, the contribution of talented individuals is the marginal advantage over competitors. You may not think that based on your experience, but that alone may be reason to re-check your numbers.
But, it’s even more significant because in this Information Age, character and good judgment are the only qualities that cannot be automated, and cannot be devalued, except by ourselves.