Rendered Fat Content


The way we proudly proclaim that we’re driven, you’d think we were cars or wagons, or maybe sheep. Driven to success does not, apparently, mean your mommy drops you off at the 7-11 so you can buy that Powerball® ticket. Executives insist that they drive performance, managers get held accountable for driving results, while individual contributors, the ones actually performing and producing, I guess they at least get a lift out of this.

The admission that data drives stopped being evidence of impotence about the time computers took to the desk top and Excel made everyone feel like real, live database managers. The following wireless revolution turned every action into some form of data to be sorted, sifted, stored, then mined. If you can’t measure it, they say you can’t manage it, but that’s no longer enough. Now, measures must be backed up with data because, contrary to what executives and managers proclaim, data’s really driving.

But data, as they used to say, doesn’t quite qualify as information. Some inferences seem necessary to transform mere measurement into something approximating useful knowledge. Who provides these inferences?

The most muscular trend lines say nothing about anything, not without some meaning seasoning them first. Who makes these meanings? Perhaps these meaning-makers are really driving.

It doesn’t take much twist on an inference to nudge a healthy procession off into uncharted space. Set a subtly absurd target and start tracking performance against that target, and watch the data lie. Define healthy growth a shade over what might be possible and a raft of obviously necessary interventions will intrude because, apparently, the data insists, and data doesn’t lie.

Campbell’s Law, a little understood principle of data use, covers the risks of employing any single indicator to measure complex phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. On projects, those ‘driving’ the efforts seem to take it as Gospel that on-time, on-budget, and on-spec reasonably define success, and that these metrics, employing some form of data, seem reasonably assessable. But no project ever gets approved merely to deliver on-time, on-budget, and on-spec. These indicators, no matter how conveniently measured, hardly even suggest success. The number of successful projects that satisfied all three of these criteria hardly bear counting, though they might require no more than a single, upraised finger to do it.

Still, someone will pull out the whip and attempt to drive these results, for to fail to satisfy the indicator might somehow be worse than succeeding in satisfying the full purpose of the effort. That purpose might only become obvious later, much later. Take the infamous Sydney Opera House, which failed to satisfy all three standard project success indicators. It merely stands now as a breath-taking presence in the world.

Data, however driven or driving, shouldn’t take anyone’s breath away. And while its presence cannot be denied, its dominion might be better nudged down a peg or two. Cripes, nobody’s driving when we cede our mysterious judgement to the simply quantitative.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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