Voice Over - The Power of Numbers

Back in the day when my ‘job’ was to sail a boat, we had an instrument called an anemometer. This is a little fan thingie at the top of the mast that spins like mad and sends a signal down to the helmsman with the relative wind speed and direction. Now I’d taken a Class and read some Books and consulted a Manual for my boat and I knew what numbers and angles were reasonable, safe and efficient. I learned how to set the sails, what was possible in terms of pointing up into the wind or falling off. As I helmed the boat, I checked that wind instrument like an OCD germaphobe squirts hand sanitiser.

Until the day it broke.

We’d been traveling for several months by that point and thought we knew what were doing. I’d used the anemometer to help me coax more speed out of my slow boat, and we did okay. We were safe. We knew when to reef, when to put up the spinnaker or tighten down the jib or shift the boom over just a wee fraction. Our beautiful beast was about as fast as your average monohull. We were a catamaran. Sailors will immediately know the punchline and can probably skip the next few paragraphs. Catamarans should be faster than monohulls. They really should.

The Day the Anemometer broke is the day I learned how to sail. I can see in the boat log that our average speed over ground from that day forward was roughly 10% faster than previously. So apparently, Dean and the girls also learned how to sail. The real question is why? Why in the absence of data were we able to perform better?

Because we listened to the boat.

Instead of doing what we were supposed to based on an arbitrary measure of wind direction and speed, we adjusted the sails by what we could see, what we could feel in the helm, hear in the pitch and angle of the wind generator fans. We didn’t reef as early because when we really listened to her, Don Quixote was telling us all along that she could handle much more wind at literally every angle of sail than we had ever permitted her to play with before. She absolutely categorically HATED upwind and it didn’t matter that the manual said she could go up to 40 degrees off, she couldn’t. We might as well drop the damn anchor and have a mai tai. Net net, our performance was considerably, measurably better when we stopped measuring the wrong number – wind – and started measuring the correct number – distance covered over time.

The economic Law of Unintended Consequences is that virtually any regulation, rule, objective or incentive will change behaviour, it just won’t necessarily change it the way you planned. You can get people to do a thing more. You can get people to do a thing less. The problem is that people are really tricksy. They will change their behaviour to precisely optimise for the objective. So if you accidentally craft the wrong target, you are going to get an outcome that isn’t necessarily what you really want. If your objective is to sail exactly as the manual recommends, sail to the anemometer. If it’s to get from Seattle to Auckland in the shortest amount of time, you might want to measure average speed over ground instead. Don’t reward people for logging in at a specific hour without doing anything to check what they do after they login; Hint: Probably read the news. Don’t give your toddler a lolly every time she uses the toilet correctly; she will attain ninja mastery at the skill of bladder control capable of squirting homeopathic volumes into the john every half hour on the hour and you will spend all your time aiding handing her lollies for the art of pulling her pants up and down.

Another unfortunate side-effect of any rule, target, or incentive is that you often create a built-in constituency for the target as constructed. No matter how carefully crafted, any objective necessarily results in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. There will be those who readily adapt to the goal either by training, personality or experience and those who just struggle with that particular construction of the target. Think of a hard metric such as “number of widgits produced per week.” Notice that metric has nothing in it that says anything about quality of widgits. So the person who can bang out a billion shitty widgits will be successful, the slower and possibly far more accurate widget maker penalised. When we change the goal to ‘number of 100% perfect widgits’ expect your banger speed-demon to get really unhappy. BTW, this is not a clever insight. I learned this in Public Administration 101 back at uni in the 90s.

Now I’m not an ‘avoid numbers’ absolutist; I find the power of a numeric objective really useful as I master a new habit. For example, I maintained a veritable battery of numbers for the past two quarters about my weight, steps, active time, measurements in order to embed a habit of regular activity even on work days. But now that a mid-day walk, walking meetings, and regular exercise are baked into my days, I’m going to stop keeping track. It’s a waste of time and effort. What really matters is how I feel when I get up in the morning, how much energy I have at the end of the day, and whether or not my mom jeans fit on the weekend.

I just think it’s incredibly important to be selective in what we choose to measure, how we describe success metrics, and whether or not we check in to see if the objective we set is resulting in the intended change in behaviour. As a change professional, I’m perfectly willing to admit that I often get it wrong when I design a change approach. No battle plan survives it’s first encounter with the enemy, right? Seriously, people are endlessly creative and in strangely fascinating ways quite unpredictable. But, you can improve the probability of achieving your objective – whether it is motivate yourself to sail faster, sell more, feel healthier, or achieve bigger and greater things – by crafting goals with the core purpose in mind rather than the easy to measure statistic.

One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” ~ Milton Friedman

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