Cupcake with a one-shaped candle

This week I’ve been listening to the highly recommended book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think  written by Swedish legend, Hans Rosling. “Factfulness” really challenges us to revisit our assumptions about binary constructs like “us vs. them” or “developed world vs. developing world.” Most of us in the “western world” still think in terms of the “haves vs. the have nots” but Rosling shows us how old that thinking really is and why we should be moving to a model of thinking in a spectrum. The book is really eye opening and, so far, there’s one piece of advice that I feel is especially critical for us all to adopt.

Beware of lonely numbers

Single numbers, especially counts of things, used on their own can be really powerful. It is no surprise that they are a key tool for a media required to peddle sensationalism just to stay afloat. These lonely, single numbers are used to surface strong emotions in order to guide you toward action. However, you have the ability to see through this manipulation. You just have to ask:

  1. What should I compare this number to?
  2. What should I divide this number by?

These questions force us to bring context to single numbers. Context allows us to protect ourselves against sensationalism – it is informational armor.

“A lonely number always makes me suspicious that I will misinterpret it. A number that I have compared and divided can, instead, fill me with hope.”

— Hans Rosling, “Factfulness”

Let’s take a real world example discussed in the book:  If I were to compare carbon dioxide emissions by nation, India and China would always seem worst, even if they had great environmental controls in place. Comparing total counts by nation is pointless due to the wide variety in population size. On the flip side, a country like Norway would always look great even if they paid no heed at all to controlling their carbon emissions. To get meaningful and comparable numbers, we need to divide the total carbon dioxide emissions for a nation by their population size – a per capita measurement. Now, we can really understand where to focus our environmental improvement energies. This measure is now useful in a way that the total emissions stats were not.

What’s your story?

We’ve all had situations in which we’ve tried to use lonely numbers and failed. Whether it’s trying to compare the number of tickets closed per person, a daily occurrence in companies, or comparing child mortality numbers across nations, there’s a lesson to learn. What have you learned? Did you just realize you may be misleading yourself? Share your learning story in the comments below!

I’ll be talking about this and offering other coaching tips on metrics next week at Agile2018.  Stay tuned for videos and slides!