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The Errant Pursuit Of Quantification

Quantification has been on my mind. The question comes up in sales conversations, compensation discussions, product development processes and marketing messages. Heck, it even comes up when you’re putting together a resume or when you’re explaining to your parents why you’re fine making a little less money for a better job.

I find this search for quantification boring and missing the mark. Here’s my problem: numbers have severe limitations. There’s another issue too: numbers give this false sense of security in judgment. If you are analytical, you can rely on the numbers for too many of your answers. It limits you or allows you to be lazy. If you have a decision to make and the numbers go one way, it is easy to point to that and say yes, do that. When it goes wrong, it is easier to justify the mistake to colleagues when you go with the numbers. It is easier to justify that approach with investors. But here’s what I know, not everything important can be measured.

Player Worth Is More Than A Set Of Numbers

Here’s my handy sports analogy because it works: if you only followed the NBA by watching box scores and knowing the salaries of the players, you would be confused. For example, you’d see that the top salaries were paid to players that scored the most points. As you got further down the list though, the impact of a player’s scoring became less and less of a factor in determining their salary. Meanwhile, you’d see guys pop up on the list who were way down in scoring and had maybe only a couple more rebounds, blocks or steals per game than many of their contemporaries.

It happened everywhere: in every front office, in every city and on every team. Somehow these people were valuable but the numbers didn’t support it. Was everyone in the NBA that bad at evaluating talent?

The Rest Of The Story…

Offense in the NBA is important but so is defense. Unfortunately defense is incredibly hard to quantify in relation to impact. Sure, you had rebounding and block leaders but even those raw statistics didn’t capture what a great defensive player can do to change a game.

Take one of my favorite guys from the Blazers named Buck Williams. On paper at least, his extra talent may have impacted 4–6 possessions of a 200 possession game. Why was he a bigger factor than that? Four things that can’t be quantified but were critical:

  1. Pulling down more rebounds on defense meant that the wing players could run out the court and get fast break opportunities they couldn’t have received if they had to stay in and help rebound.
  2. It made playing man to man defense much easier. If your guy got around you, you knew help was behind to assist. It allowed your other players to play more aggressively on the ball.
  3. Simply contesting a rebound impacts the flow of the game. When you fight for the ball on a rebound, you can disrupt the other team’s flow because they have to adjust for the extra time it will take to field the ball.
  4. He kept other players away from the basket and when they came close, he was able to contest shots. While an uncontested shot within ten feet may be a gimme, a contested shot had a substantial impact on scoring.

One of the other guys that was good at this was Mark Eaton of the hated Utah Jazz. He seemed to be omnipresent within eight to ten feet of the basket and made inside scoring difficult for any team. His blocking prowess was good but was only two blocks above what other centers were doing in the league. His defensive presence impacted game plans and allowed the Jazz to be a better team than they deserved to be despite fairly average career numbers outside of blocks.

Neither one of these guys are in the basketball hall of fame. Neither are guys like Alvin Robertson, Dennis Johnson, Michael Cooper, Horace Grant and Maurice Cheeks. They probably won’t ever be since that is often a numbers game too. But they made an indelible impact on their teams.

Not Everything That’s Important Can Be Quantified

Not to get too philosophical on you but if you’re married, what’s your ROI? What’s the break even mark for helping your grandma clean out her gutters? Unless you’re crass enough to marry for money or help family members for a slice of inheritance, I am guessing numbers didn’t cross your mind.There is great value there that adds to your life in ways that don’t show up on your bank statement or resume.

Even though we internally realize that many important things can’t be quantified, we still mindlessly pursue quantifying until we find our answer. Why is that? We certainly can’t trash the idea of ROI (we still do rely on money to run our businesses) but we can also focus on important parts of our business that don’t show up on spreadsheets, don’t have a profit margin and won’t show up in EBITDA.

You have to find the Buck Williams’ and Mark Eaton’s of your company and recognize them. Their individual stats may not show it but I guarantee that everyone around them is inexplicably better because they are around. The focus on quantification and supposed fairness has pushed these people out of organizations in some cases.

Are you willing to make that same mistake? Are you going to allow your spreadsheet to dictate a talent evaluation process that really requires deeper investigation than just a cursory glance at numbers?

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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