Stats Lie Pt 1: Partial Truths

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

C.S. Lewis wrote in his Reflections on the Psalms,

“Almost anything can be read into any book if you are determined enough.”

Part of our humanity is that we’re constant interpreters. And we’re not just interpreters of books like in the quote above, but we’re interpreters of just about everything….including numbers.

A long time friend who has been in my organization a really long time has told me a couple times,

“If you beat a number long enough, you can make it say whatever you want it say.”

This is often true of statistics.  Have you heard someone share a statistic and you might have some knowledge of what when on and you have the thought, “You know, there’s a different side to that story…”?

I was watching the NCAA Tournament this weekend and during halftime of the Marquette vs. Murray State matchup analyst Kenny Smith said something to the effect of,

“This is what we’re talking about when we say ‘Stats lie.

What he was saying was that while the numbers on which people would normally gauge success for a certain player might look horribly bad, if you asked the people closest to the action with the most understanding you’ll find out that the true story may be totally different than the story the numbers tell on their own.

I think baseball is a great sport that illustrate how stats can lie.  Agents will use some stats to try to strengthen contract demands like home runs and RBI.  Then the teams will respond with how bad that player’s on base percentage is and how many strikeouts they have.  Usually, outside of crazy myopia, negotiations end up somewhere in the middle.  That’s because…

One set of numbers doesn’t usually tell the full story.

So while this is not an argument against statistics, this is a call to think about how we access the truth.  For all of us recognize the importance of measurements.  But not all of us think critically about our own approach to numbers as interpreters of reality and the truth. This is where many factors come into play like character, culture, and power.

Is our interpretation of some statistics leading towards the telling of partial truths?  Or are we sometimes, consciously or not, as Kenny Smith suggests telling outright lies?

There’s a few posts coming with a view to look at different dimensions of statistics and truth telling so check back in a couple days for more!


Stats Lie Pt 2: Tunnel Vision

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

In the last post I started a series called “Stats Lie.”  That post was focused on stats and partial truths.  This post will explore the relationship between stats and tunnel vision. As mentioned previously, this is not a series against statistics or measurements, but about our relationship to and how we access the truth of a situation.

I currently minister in the context of an ethnic minority specific ministry as part of a larger ministry that is mostly homogenous (majority culture/white). Even today, there are great challenges to ethnic minority staff and students joining our organization as well as staying once they have joined.  The experience of cultural marginalization on multiple levels just so often is too much to overcome for longevity in this particular environment.

So 2012 is challenging for ethnic minority staff in my organization.

Let’s take a moment and go back 40 years….

In the last year, I and others I work with have had conversations with more people that were pioneering ethnic ministry in the earlier years of our organization.   One of the nuggets we learned was that in the early 70’s, some of the few ethnic minority staff pioneered a leadership development program that created space for all of the ethnic minority staff to be together for contextualized training, development, outreach and community in which they could invest in the areas that were making or breaking ethnic minority staff success.

It was ahead of its time. It was producing fruit. It’s what we’ve been working to do in our own context these last 4-5 years!  So what happened?

Stats lied.   Among other things.

At the time, the head of the organization looked primarily at one stat – evangelistic production.  This test case of a leadership development program for ethnic minorities was not producing the number of outreaches and evangelistic contacts that were up to speed with the expectations of the day.

The program was canceled (without real discussion with the ethnic leadership, but that’s another discussion).  Leadership was shuffled. There was then an exodus of Asian American, Latino, and Native American staff especially over the next couple of years.

Now I’m sure I don’t know the whole story and I’m sure there’s tons I don’t know, but I’ve heard enough to see the impact of one statistic on the entire culture of my organization.  One decision that resulted in losing almost a whole generation of Asian American, Latino, and Native American staff.  Furthermore, what was experienced by those early staff would end up being a repeated experience for many over the years – and even now. Opportunity lost.

A judgment was made on the bases of 1 criteria – and I believe we’ve been paying for it ever since. (This leader made many great decisions, but there was a price to pay with this one).

That’s one way stats lie.  In the hands of someone or a group of people who have tunnel vision, a rigid over focus on one area while losing sight of the bigger picture and other elements, stats become powerful protectors of the status quo.

Can you imagine, if you are one that serves in the same context as I do, what might have been different or what might be different had a different decision been made at the time – one that was made with enough awareness of all the significant variables at play for those pioneers of the day? How much pain could have been spared over decades?  How many ethnic minority leaders might have otherwise helped shape the direction of our organization?

Even today it seems we’re often fumbling around, making the same mistakes, all the while somehow managing to feel like we’re just staying focused on our “priorities.”  I wonder if a modern day tunnel vision is protecting tradition and the status quo, keeping eyes blind to the rest of the picture.  But this is a dynamic present in many contexts and not just my own.

One criteria lends itself to the trappings of certainty, rigidity, and over-confidence.  All of these things hurt our ability to see and understand how actions may impact a diverse group of people in different ways.

Fixation on one criteria + blind spots/lack of cultural awareness/rigid views = Lost Generation of Leaders

Are we making any of these same mistakes today?

What stats or standards of success do you think can block the bigger picture? What stats can deceive us into perceived success or failure when it may not be the case?

**For more on tunnel vision, check out a past post here called “The Disability of Competence.”


Stats Lie Pt 3: ….Except For When They Don’t

This entry is part 3 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

I titled this series “Stats Lie.”  And they do sometimes.

But sometimes they don’t! 

Sometimes we do.

But sometimes measurements are so clear and so powerfully self-evident that there’s not a whole lot that people can do to skew them. And there’s a whole lot of measurements we better pay attention to!

Say your blood pressure gets tested at 180/100.   How are you going to confuse that for anything else than you better get some help fast!

Say your gas tank is on E and the light’s on – you know you only have a small window to refill before you pay the price.

Say your checking account is lower than what you’re outgoing bills are.  Well – the numbers speak for themselves.

In all phases of life, we have measurements and we use numbers to gauge health or progress.  It’s a necessity and we can’t avoid it.  To avoid measurements is to either live in a world of wishful thinking (fantasy) or deep denial.

Those who reject responsible metrics are those who are rejecting adulthood, truth, and accountability.

Measurements, used properly, connect us to reality – and reality is our friend (if we hope to be leading towards any kind of meaningful future).   So just because some stats or measurements are somewhat malleable in the hands of leaders and people does not mean we should throw them all out the window.  You’ll find yourself lost if that be the case.

Several years back we uncovered the fact that a large percentage of our staff were significantly underfunded with also significant amounts of personal debt.  While it hurt us short term, would it do us good to ignore that stat or explain it away?  No.  We had to engage and do the hard work of leading into the exposed area of needed leadership.   And those efforts have paid off.

Some measurements are somewhat self-evident and there’s not a lot of interpretive work needed.  Most measurements in ministry leadership often do need a lot of interpretive work.  That’s doesn’t diminish the need for measurements, just speaks to the complex sociological and spiritual and human nature of how things work together systemically.

There’s more to come on things that affect the interpretation of statistics and thus the the theme of how stats can lie.  But know this – stats hardly ever do damage by themselves, it’s how they’re interpreted and used that can be good or bad.

And some measurements scream loudly enough to overcome even the most ignorant or biased perspectives we can bring to the table.

What measurements do you think are helpful and scream the loudest in your context?  

What measurements do you think are highly contextual and thus more subject to human interpretation?

Stats Lie Pt 4: Story & Stats

This entry is part 4 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

Did you ever see the Double Rainbow you-tube video?

One of the greatest things ever and a reason I’m thankful for the internet.  I’ll post it below for you if you haven’t seen it.

But it’s basically a dude in the outdoors who witnesses a double rainbow in nature and he’s beside himself and overcome.  He’s left to ponder the meaning of what he’s witnessing.  So the phrases “Double Rainbow” and “What does it mean?” are repeated often amidst weeping. There may be other influences at work influencing his mood and mindset, but that’s another story. 🙂

“Double Rainbow” is really a metaphor for interpretation and hermeneutics and the often subjective quest to understand the significance and truth of something, especially when the “meaning” is hard to squeeze into a quantifiable box.

A senior ministry leader who has been around the block said to me a few months back, “You know, I just can’t trust statistics if I don’t know what they mean.” Seems like an obvious statement, but most of us probably have tons of examples of ourselves or others being quick to react to a statistic without really understanding what it might mean…..really.

So what do they mean?  As mentioned in the previous post, sometimes the meaning can be obvious to all and close to self-evident. But there are dangers sometimes.

What about when we assume we know what it means, but we’re wrong or have too limited of a perspective to have a meaningful and realistic perspective?

What if we look at a stat and it just seems incredible and we start trying to interpret significance into something that might not be there?   Double Rainbow!

I wrote a section in “Five Majority Culture Postures Towards Ethnic Minority Ministry” that included the line, “Statistics without story usually create guilt and pressure.”  That was in the context of motivating people to action – trying to get people to do things without the relational connections or underlying heart adjustments.  But statistics without story also leave us in the “Double Rainbow” position because we can lack the contextual clues to draw out the meaning and significance of them.

Statistics need story to be meaningful measurements in ministry (and elsewhere as well). Without understanding story in and behind a situation, the way we use our measurements can become ethnocentric and maybe can even sabotage progress because of how we can try to squeeze others into our own structures and expectations.  Without story, we actually can judge or even dehumanize those in the reality we’re looking at because numbers tend to take on a life of their own. When we think we know what something means, but fail to recognize what those things mean to those living other stories we do damage.

A general example would be when we measure specific and tangible results but fail to take into account power dynamics and the everpresent forces that create hardships, challenges, and barriers that others on the “right” side of power don’t face.  Should you assess both situations equally? The stories are different and success will look different as a result.

Statistics can be used as a tool of power or they can be used to empower.  Oftentimes the difference is the commitment to understand story.  This means a grounding of our interpretation and our use of such measurements and results in a broader understanding of culture and context.  That means learning, humility, relationships, and intentionality.

We have to do the work to understand the whole – and not just measure the parts.   Otherwise, we might be left like the double rainbow guy to make up half-baked (in his case literally perhaps!) interpretations. Or worse – we’re left to make ignorant, biased, ethnocentric, or unethical interpretations or applications (See Pt 2: Tunnel Vision).

So let’s not get mesmerized by a statistic itself (Double Rainbow!), but let’s work to understand the whole so that our interpretations are informed by both the statistics AND the story.

How do you see story being important in measuring results and what does it look like practically to use both statistics and story to draw conclusions?

For the uninitiated:

And go here for a version that was turned into a song with production.


Stats Lie Pt 5: Stats, Shine, & Speed

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

We’re all attracted to shiny objects.  Some things just draw attention because they stand out and are a bit more flashy than others.  This phenomenon shows up in measurements too – some metrics have a real flash to them and carry an initial wow factor to them and in fact, the “shinyness” of some metrics or numbers can lead us to give something much more weight than we should when assessing overall effectiveness.

When you are evaluating talent or leadership potential, does one particular skill set get you more excited than other things?

About a year ago ESPN the Magazine ran an entire issue to “Speed” in Athletics.  One of the articles within that issue started off with the following quote:

“Speed always impresses, but few can outrun mediocrity.”
(Peter Keating, Feb 21, 2011)

The gist of the article was the way in which the recent use of statistical analysis (i.e. what was illustrated in moneyball) was illuminating the ways in which speed by itself was a very misleading quality or talent in assessing overall effectiveness and contribution to the team. One example was the surprising effectiveness of Chris Snyder, Pirates catcher and slowest man in the big leagues. Another example was the surprising overall lack of effectiveness of Vince Coleman, one of the baseball speedsters of my generation.

Coleman and Snyder provide a good contrast.  Coleman makes me think of a lot of the way organizations and ministries see leadership development and do leadership selection.  We sometimes can see one skill set that is producing immediate results and we can start to convince ourselves that they are the next go to people for the job.

In my world, those that can speak or teach up front are the ones that are seen as shiny objects. There’s plenty of people out there that have been promoted based on a surface level impressiveness.  As a result, we have a lot of leadership and ministry “Vince Coleman’s.” Not infrequently, once those people get in their new jobs that one skill set often isn’t enough and the other areas of deficiency sooner or later catch up to them if they’ve been leaning on one or two main talents to get by.  It’s a time honored problem in a lot of places where leaders get hired for a bigger job based on the success they had in another job that required a totally different skill set.  Success at one level doesn’t always translate to success on another.

Snyder reminds me of those leaders who don’t look flashy and don’t immediately impress, but the whole package is solid and results in long term impact.  While initial impressions might dismiss him as an impact player, a deeper and more reflective assessment reveals the true story.

Keating finished his piece observing, “Speed is cool. But sports don’t just reward inherent abilities; they reward the intelligent application of those abilities on the field of play.”

So context matters as does the maximization of skills and gifts within those contexts.

In leadership selection and development – let’s focus on overall impact and not just the flashy skill set and first impressions.

There’s something in this discussion that hearkens back to King David’s anointing as King when he was still a youngest child tending flock.  Samuel was drawn to the “shiny” thinking the more impressive looking men were the ones that God must want.  The Lord reminds him that while men look at the external, the Lord looks at the heart.  There was nothing “shiny” about David at that time, but there was a bigger story that made him the right person for what God was about to do.

What skill sets do you think are most deceiving?  How do you assess impact players at larger levels in the ways that lead to long-term fruit and effectiveness?

*This was initially posted on October 12, 2011, but it deserves a home in this “Stats Lie” series.

Stats Lie Pt 6: Storytelling, Stats, and Org Culture

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

I’ve been on a bit of a blogging hiatus due to directing the national staff conference for my ministry (Epic), but excited to try to get back in the swing of things and continue on in the series I started entitled “Stats Lie.” Here’s part six on the relationship between statistics, storytelling, and culture shaping.

Statistics and measurements play a pretty central role in the shaping or forming of ministry culture.  Most of us recognize this as it relates to the reinforcement of priorities, values, objectives, or the ultimate vision.  But there’s another way statistics and measurements influence culture and that is through storytelling.

Storytelling takes many forms within organizations.  Frequently it’s through short narratives or anecdotes. Those are explicit examples and easiest to identify as stories, representative narratives embodying success or our vision of what we are about.  But stats tell stories too.

One of the most important things we can remember when leading organizationally is that statistics reflect underlying narratives.  And a rule of narratives is that what stories we tell or don’t tell will dictate explicitly or wield subtle power over the culture of the community moving forward.

This is where I really like the work of Walter Brueggemann, who demonstrates powerfully in his writing the relationship between power and storytelling.  If we only allow positive stats or stats that help us feel good, then we are shaping a culture that will increasingly grow uncomfortable in assessing the status quo and current reality.

But there’s other ways too – when stats are only used in storytelling to motivate people to accomplish what is not going well, the use of statistics will increasingly shape a culture of performance, guilt, shame, or uncomfortable goal orientedness at the expense of meaning.

Statistics, as we use them to tell the story of where we are and where we are going, have the power to define our perception of our current reality as well as our perception of where we need to go.  Sometimes it’s what stats we choose.  Sometimes it’s how we interpret them.  Sometimes it’s how we communicate them.

There’s a stewardship of statistics that needs to be examined because they impact what we as people believe about ourselves as well.  In the numerical as well as conventional narratives shared, we can find ourselves internalize messages about our worth, our significance, our purpose.  Now while we know we should let those things be defined by stats or what we do – that’s what power does to people.  It wields a psychological influence that seeks to mold people to its version of “truth.”  We are all vulnerable to being influenced by organizational narratives, intended or otherwise, about what is of utmost value to the organization.

So the way we use statistics shapes organizational culture in more ways than just reinforcing organizational priorities.  We can create at least three kinds of dysfunctional cultures through our statistical storytelling. We can create…

  1. “Doing” cultures in which workaholism and performance is lifted up and rewarded
  2. “Anxious” cultures in which no goal is big enough and to rest or be content with where we are in time is viewed as unspiritual
  3. “Lazy” cultures in which our fear of accomplishment, measurements,  and the stewardship of power leads us to avoid leading to hard places.

Statistics are storytelling and they need to be stewarded so that we can assess our own leadership and motivate others in human and ethical ways. Statistics do not just keep us “on track” but over time they wield an an existential impact on what people begin to identify as valuable and meaningful in both the organization and also life as a whole.

What kind of an impact do stats have on you? Do you find yourself slowly becoming defined by them?

How is your use of stats and measurements influencing the culture that you are seeking to shape?  Are they bearing fruit in keeping with both your objectives AS WELL AS your values?



Stats Lie Pt 7 – Stats and Lack of Capacity

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

I want to continue on in my series of posts here with another baseball inspired post.  It is the sport of my youth so I just can’t stay away from it for too long.

Last week Buster Olney, ESPN baseball guru, tweeted out a statement to the effect that “There is no perfect defensive efficiency statistic in baseball right now.” He cited an example of my Chicago Cubs.  He wrote that based on the most widely used defensive statistic now, that the fourth rated defensive outfielder is Alfonso Soriano.  Say What???!!!!

Stats lie. And this one tells a whopper!

For context for non-baseball folk.  Soriano is BRUTAL as a left fielder.  He had a cannon for an arm, but the rest of the time it’s like watching a little leaguer try to make plays. He was a second baseman for a long time.  But he was horrible and was an error machine.  The Cubs paid him the worst contract ever and he’s been in left field for the last five years with the Cubs.  He merits his own bloopers special.  This gives rise to what I am going to call “The Soriano Effect.”

“The Soriano Effect” is when you are so bad at defense, that you don’t even end up in a position to make a lot of the same mistakes others make because you don’t even have the capacity to get there in the first place.  So your numbers look good, but only because you weren’t good enough to have a chance to make a mistake.

“The Soriano Effect” is at work in ministries and organizations. It happens when leaders take comfort in some measurement or statistic, yet a closer examination might reveal that the number really reveals a total lack of capacity in some other crucial area.

Take someone who is looking at their financial stewardship.  They look at their savings and feel awesome and they feel real good about their financial stewardship and responsibility. But a closer look reveals perhaps that they don’t give or tithe or donate money anywhere.  So at what first glance is financial responsibility, is actually hoarding and selfishness.  The success in one measurement was produced by a total lack of capacity in another area.

In my organization, some of the numbers of new staff to one of the ethnic specific ministries has been celebrated (and rightfully so) as the most sent into this ministry ever.  However, all of them are serving cross-culturally and none have been from the ethnic context itself.  It’s still worth celebrating, but it reveals that there still is a tremendous lack of organizational capacity to see folks from this ethnic background join our staff.  The success of one statistic hides the weakness or lack of capacity in another crucial area.  The potential danger is that the conversations would be directed by the celebrated stat and the needed conversations to build capacity in the other areas wouldn’t happen.  (This isn’t being critical, just illustrating the process. We have to celebrate, learn, and change all at the same time. Sometimes stats lure us into premature or naive celebration.)

And say you’re running a web site with a blog.  You get really excited by the number of hits you have over its first couple of months and you only look at that one statistic.  You feel good about yourself. But then you find out the real story is that it’s your mom and other family members repeatedly reading everything.  You have maybe a lot of hits, but the range and network of influence is exposed as being really narrow. This may be true for some Christian “evangelistic” web sites actually too, where hits are celebrated but they may be mostly coming from believers and those in the Church. “The Soriano Effect.”

So as you think deeper about measurements and statistics you might use, what areas or capacities might be getting “covered up?”  Do your numbers have the equivalent to a “photographic negative” that reveals a lack of capacity in some area?

The “Soriano Effect” can be great for rationalization and justification, but it doesn’t pass the eye test (or smell test if you prefer) for those that know what to look for.

Where are you seeing “The Soriano Effect”?

How do you guard against statistical deception when it is driven by an obvious lack of capacity in some other area of significance?




Stats Lie Pt 8 – Donor Numbers

This entry is part 8 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

Who ultimately judges your success or effectiveness?

Working in a not for profit or ministry context adds an additional and complex element to this question.  You see, ministries and non-profits are dependent upon donations and giving from many sources and partnerships.  So certain statistics or measurements must be used to show these donors that their giving or “investment” is indeed making a difference in some significant way.

This is true in some way in the business world where the bottom line and return on investments validates the initial investment. The measurements though are often a bit more clear and black or white in the for-profit sector than the not for profit sector.  One of the key differences for non-profits is that there are often more than quantitative results that are at the heart of their mission and purpose.  Qualitative and contextual factors are perhaps more important in a lot of cases to the success of the mission than quantitative figures alone.

But from observation and experience, qualitative and contextual measurements are much harder to convey to people a step removed from where the action is (i.e. donors).  It’s far easier to rely on more quantitative measurements because they are simple, bottom line, and convey a perspective about the scope of your impact.  They are easier to understand and in our society many people respond to numbers and scope when it comes to their giving.

I think it’s important to recognize that there is a capitalist dynamic at work even in ministries in how measurements affect how we see success.  Our attitudes towards and “relationship” with our funding influences the degree to which we become formed by expectations that may show little regard or awareness to the qualitative and contextual factors of our mission. We can begin to function in reaction to what what we think donors need to see and want to see and lose our bearing on what may be of utmost importance to our success or fruitfulness in a particular place at a particular time.

This is the “system” and while we cannot change it and it’s not all bad by any means, we need to have awareness of these dynamics and the power that those with the money can have over what is perceived as most important.  Maybe that power isn’t wielded by the donors directly (though in smaller contexts this is more of an issue) as much as it is at work in the leader who is subconsciously or consciously driven by fear that if they don’t produce eye popping numbers that the money will dry up.

The dark side of insecure non-profit or ministry leadership is to begin to function to please donors as opposed to serving those in your context in line with your stated vision and values. The stats begin to lie because the stats devolve to the point where they aren’t being used to truly serve real people in a real context. The people in the context you’re serving can become second class to the people behind the money.

The pull of money and resources is strong – so what are our options?

  • First – I’d say we need to be aware of the power that money and funding holds as well as our own heart condition as leaders in relation to the role financial anxiety places in our leadership and decision making.  We need resources, but we do not serve resources. Fund raising tests our hearts, our willingness to trust the Lord’s provision, and our integrity on mission regardless of the financial realities. Taking a moment to step back from the inner workings of our situation for some honest self evaluation serves us well from time to time.
  • Second – I think while quantitative results should not be abandoned, because they are important, I think we need to continue to prioritize “contextual storytelling.” Instead of storytelling to show donors how great an investment they made, we can tell great stories to convey the qualitative and contextual realities that are being met, changed, or redeemed.  Not only are donors seeing quantitative impact, but through the stories shared they are learning about the context (often cultural).  For ministries especially, donors need to see the real life realities that shape what is at stake in people’s lives and communities – not just the bottom line of how many people get “saved.”
  • I work in an ethnic minority ministry context, but many of our ministry partners/donors are white majority culture.  On one hand many may be satisfied by numbers and general stories of how much God is doing.  But if I fail to help them get to know the stories and the context we’re working in (and I sometimes do), then I’m not serving either the people in this context nor am I serving those who are giving and investing their money into what God wants to do in that community.
  • Third – I think leaders need to be intentional to equip and educate people about what is successful and what is fruitful, especially with a view towards servanthood and empowerment.  Because of the contextual nature of success, this is not about prescribing one size fits all standards, but helping people with the tools they need to identify what is success given their context and the mission.  Leaders who impose criteria from one context into another are probably doing some damage in one way or another.  But leaders need to learn how to identify and articulate success in ways that are clear both to those inside the organization working and serving AND to those who are funding these efforts.  This may mean two sets of success criteria catered to the knowledge and awareness of those two groups.  Either way – there is intentionality to take ownership of what is seen as successful and that success is seen as having qualitative and contextual dimensions in addition to some quantitative dimensions as well.

Measurements that are used to evaluate those serving in a context, but that are shaped and designed to speak to those outside that context undermine the servant nature of a non-profit or ministry culture. 

My experience is that many don’t know how to think about measurements or success criteria outside of goal setting.  I think this creates a lot of space for confusion and ambiguity about who measurements are supposed to serve. Do they serve executive leadership? Donors?  Us as workers? The people that we are seeking to impact?

All benefit from good measurements but if our measurements or success criteria are not resulting in greater actual serving of real people in real contexts then we need to examine just who we might be seeking to serve instead. We might not always like the answer.

Where do you see the power of money influencing measurements and the effort to serve?  What do you think helps to guard the integrity of the mission and the serving effort when money and funding can so easily redirect our focus?

Stats Lie Pt 9 – Measurements and Lenses

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series Stats Lie

I wanted to continue my series of posts on statistics, measurements, and results with a more narrative illustration of different approaches to results and measurements.  The essence of this post will be to highlight the three necessary lenses that we need to be able to appropriately, ethically, and accurately assess the results of what we do.  These lenses are qualitative, quantitative, and contextual.

One of the critical functions of a leader is being able to understand the meaning of what they are looking at or analyzing.  Let me illustrate this with a snapshot from real life last month.


As you can see this is a picture – a coloring page to be more specific.  But if were interested in finding out the results of a child’s artwork, this would be all that we would need.  The question, “How many pages or dolphins were printed out and colored?” would be all one would need.  Quantity is important, but the information you get from it can be limited if you only use that lens. Sometimes quantity doesn’t tell you much.



 You see here that work has been done.  The question is “How well was the page colored?”  What’s the quality of the work done?  In this case you can make the observations that the dolphins were colored blue or teal (instead of maybe the “right” color of gray) and between the lines.  For some reason there’s a black tail on one of the dolphins which may seem a little weird.  And there’s a name given to the dolphin, which can be either just a name assigned to the dolphin or maybe a seasonal reference.



Here’s a snapshot of my daughter, 7, who drew this picture.  But here is the context, those things that add additional levels of meaning to the work that might not be appreciated if one just saw the quantitative and qualitative results sitting on the table.

First, it’s of significance that Winter is the name of the dolphin in the movie “A Dolphin’s Tale” which is about a dolphin who has its fin damaged and amputated.  The story chronicles the journey of how an artificial limb was developed to help him learn to swim and survive again.  So the name “Winter” and the black portion of the dolphin’s flipper/fin (whatever it is) are thus explained.  An additional level of meaning has been added.

Second, it’s also significant to note that my daughter has a mild form of cerebral palsy and wears an AFO (a leg brace on her right foot and leg) to help present muscle atrophy and keep her leg stretched out.  Handwriting has been something she’s had to work extremely hard at because the muscle strength and control of her hands and feet aren’t the same of other kids.  She’s had to work very hard to develop her handwriting and coloring so seeing what she’s able to do know, knowing her journey, adds another level of meaning.

Third, this picture was colored in response to a tough day.  There was a day a few weeks back where she was playing with other kids and the circumstances really led to her feeling her physical limitations.  She excels in a lot of areas and doesn’t often feel her physical limitations, but this was a day where she was feeling different and feeling sad for what she wasn’t able to do.  In previous weeks our kids had watched the movie and colored pictures of winter and were into it.  My daughter had previously shared from her own reflection and initiation why that movie was good and how she identified with the dolphin in the movie.  She came home and was in a reflective state and asked me to print out a picture of winter that she could color.   Seeing the background, the context, emotional reality, and the initiative to find comfort in someone/something that provided need connection, belonging, and identification all adds several more layers of meaning to interpreting the meaning of the results of the coloring of the page.

If I was teaching on these lenses in a leadership context I’d want to make the point that interpretation through these lenses needs to be anchored in organizational/corporate identity as well as the mission and values of said organization or culture.   But the three lenses are necessary to make helpful, accurate, ethical, and appropriate interpretations of results and of course the right action that should follow those interpretations.

Stats lie when we interpret them wrongly.  The way we guard against that is integrating good data with both common sense and interpretive discernment.  Sometimes that means interpretation takes more time.  But it’s worth it.  Because a lot of damage is often done because we let stats lie – or more appropriately, we deceive ourselves with half-truths in our forming of conclusions.