I taught a class this week on ‘measuring success’ – not something I’m supremely qualified to talk about, but there it is.
The gist of the class was that if you have the right numbers, you can make good, or better, decisions about your business. I gave the example of Moneyball, the 2003 bestseller by Michael Lewis on the success of the Oakland A’s baseball team in using data to select better value players for their roster, an approach to success that has spread through every competitive sport, down to and including cricket where after England’s crucial defeat at the recent World Cup the team manager said he would know why they’d lost once he’d ‘had a look at the stats’.
I was able to provide a business example from my own experience. I once worked for a software engineering company one of whose clients was a contract cleaning firm whose customers were two major supermarket chains. The supermarkets dictated all the terms of the contract including the very narrow net profit the company was permitted to make, and the only way to maximise this was to slash costs (i.e. staff) and then carefully monitor declining performance at the various stores in real time, moving cleaners around in SWAT teams to deal with problem cases. It was harum scarum stuff, and only worked because of the real-time software linked to each store as it was audited on a daily basis for cleanliness. It was all in the numbers.
What you can quantify, then, you can understand, and what you can understand you can sustain, or improve. The same is now true of the self. The ‘quantified self’ is a sort of audit of your own health and productivity (read about it here). With a smartphone and now a smartwatch you can collect key data about your life – your cholesterol, your heart rate, the number of steps you have taken, the number of minutes you have spent on a given activity. What can you do with this data? Moneyball your life, presumably. If you read the data the right way, you can strip the machine of your life back to its most efficient configuration, and emerge ahead of the pack.
A note of caution, however: I should point out that both the contract cleaning company and the software company I spoke of are now bankrupt, the supermarkets they serviced (Sainsbury and Tesco) are watching their profits freefall, and the Oakland A’s haven’t actually won anything. Perhaps the numbers give no more than an illusion of control. You have been warned.