What’s in a Number?

In one of our matches last season, my girls scored 5 goals.

Now I’ll ask you a question. What’s wrong with that statistic?

It’s useless!

But why? When you look at the score of a soccer match, it’s pretty clear – you have nothing against which you can compare it. The obvious missing ingredient is the number of goals the other team scored. With that additional piece of data, so much more is gained. What if the other team scored 0? Or 4? Or how about 12? Each of those numbers, paired with our score, tells a story. But one score alone does not.

If this is so clear in sports, though, why do we repeatedly overlook it in the business world? I was on a discovery call today with a customer who shared a metric they track. It’s a raw number. Not a percentage or anything else that can be compared – just a raw number. And then the customer went on to dismiss the metric as being largely ignored. But it was clear from the call that he hadn’t given any thought to why it was ignored, only that it is.

In his defense – and this customer shall remain nameless, anyway – I think the raw number metric was someone else’s idea and he was only relaying information in this case. But I was still concerned by the fact that it wasn’t immediately apparent to him why it’s ignored.

By the way, what I’m sharing here is not original. My own attention was first drawn to it by Rob Collie (T|L). He presented a session at IndyPASS a couple of years ago on aspects of data, and included this wisdom. When analyzing data, look for key words in the name; words like “by”, “of”, “per”, and “versus”. “Actual Widgets Produced” is just a number. “Actual Widgets Sold VERSUS Forecasted Widgets Sold” is a valuable metric.

The Dow Jones closed at 29,395.33 on Friday. So?!?! That was down 0.12% from the close on Thursday. Ok, now we’re getting somewhere. Give me Friday’s raw number and it tells me nothing. Compare it to Thursday’s and now I have something to work with. I can surmise that Friday was kind of a “meh” day for the stock market. So if my own portfolio took a hard turn one way or another, it might be something worth checking into. But if all I had was Friday’s close, I wouldn’t know that.

Anyway, the reason I bring it up now is because it is so rarely recognized. And it’s the simplest of concepts that can turn useless data into actionable metrics. Whenever you are analyzing anything, ask yourself, “What am I comparing this against?” If the answer is “nothing” then you need to adjust your metric.

I hope this helps. Oh, and that other team scored 2 goals. So we won the Shelby County Derby this year. Go Tigers!

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