Not The Wind, Not The Flag

If you’re not familiar with the concept of a koan, it’s like a riddle or puzzle from eastern philosophies which is meant to redirect your way of thinking (think, “the sound of one hand clapping”). For example:

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”
The other replied, “The wind is moving.”
The master overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.

This explanation comes from Wikipedia: “This kōan demonstrates the realization that in naming an object one may cloud one’s understanding of the true nature of mind by falling into externalization and believing that the true nature of the flag, the wind, and the mind are different.”

OK, that’s pretty abstract, I’ll admit, but it started me thinking about how we think about data. I have been accused of becoming lost in numbers and losing sight of the story. People sometimes feel that when you use numbers to analyze a situation, the numbers take on a life of their own, and everything becomes about the numbers. Of course, numbers are simply a tool to telling a story. They work in service of a narrative. If they don’t, they’re not very useful.

If you’re working toward self-actualization (congratulations, by the way), a koan can help remind you that everything is one. Looking at data is similar. Like a flag, numbers can be an indicator of some cause, like wind. The flag can tell us something about the wind. But the wind is not a thing in isolation either. It has to be taken in the context of the situation, how we perceive it, and what affect we have on it. Its a part of the story, the goal, or the big picture of why you’re looking at the data in the first place.

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You Get What You Measure

I love the title of this program. I wish I had thought of it. This is a beautiful reminder of why we should be constantly introspective about metrics.

This is actually the title of a program or process for non-profits from Yellow Wood Associates. It’s a systems-analysis based process for determining your key indicators. I confess that I don’t know much about it, but I love the name.

“You get what you measure” has two meanings. On one hand, you have to be careful that you’re not measuring the wrong things. You will naturally follow your metrics. If someone tells you that your performance will be judged on increasing x and decreasing y, you’ll naturally do whatever you can to achieve that. In the process, you can quickly lose sight of your objectives.  Increasing x and decreasing y are probably important, but they’re important as an element or part of some bigger picture.

On the flip side, this can be a good thing if you are measuring the right stuff. It’s often argued that you can’t make true progress without some measure of success. (Remember the cliche, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not likely to get there.”) But measurements are even more important as a communications tool. Even in a small organization, it’s easy to have everyone moving in different directions. If the directions are generally similar, this can be hard to detect. Clear measurements help get everyone going in exactly the same direction, and aligns everyone in the team.

We’re always focused on outcomes. This is why it’s so important that your metrics reflect your outcomes. If they don’t, you’ll quickly be chasing actions that do not contribute to your impact.

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