Conversations Over Computations

Mac Bogert

I recently had the pleasure of finishing Robert Harris’s Pompeii, a terrific novel set in 79 AD. The plot covers engineering, physics, politics, corruption, love and redemption. In the final pages, Pliny ―an historical figure and famous observer of natural history―is engulfed by the pyro static surge from Vesuvius. A rigorously logical scientist, he’s perplexed by what he didn’t foresee, and his last thought is Men mistook measuring for understanding.



We’re drowning in data: surveys, polls, reports, studies, every possibility of finding meaning soaked with too much information. TMI.

Look at the tsunami of election polls. The numbers change people’s perception, which changes their behavior, which changes the polls, which changes people’s perceptions and the circular firing squad of political polling blossoms. Data influencing itself. And those who know how to use this phenomenon win elections by using the process of polling as a tool for changing results.

Look at how data is used to make management decisions. Profit/Loss tables. Risk management. Climate surveys. All the various programs that gather, collate, and report information. The problem arises—and creates dysfunction—when we generate leadership conclusions that rely on data without dialogue. If people were computers, that might work. But we are not. We find meaning through association, sharing ideas, and perceptions via social connection: conversation.

I’m not knocking data. I love science, research, information. Yet until we start seeing data as a starting point for a conversation rather than a determiner of action, we’re managing information, not leading people. Including ourselves. Management can be quantitative, leadership must be qualitative. Otherwise, we are letting ourselves be led by numbers and not by leaders.


Heisenberg, Gould, and Brown - Not the name of a law firm

I was a math major. Numbers and such are useful, interesting, and a great resource for checking insight. Science has an abiding use for data. But facts are not pure. We skew data by the act of gathering it.

Three people who are much smarter than I have addressed this. They provide some interesting points about data. First, Werner Heisenberg (Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, 1958):

What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

We all see things differently, and we bring our biases and hopes to the process of observing. When we survey employees about their workplace, the act of conducting surveys affects results. I’ve met many, many folks, from children in elementary schools to tall children (adults) in positions of authority who are fed up with polls and surveys. That fed-up-ed-ness leads them to disregard the results and even disrespect the process of gathering information, so their responses are suspect.

As soon as we pay attention to something, we’ve changed it. Albert Einstein acknowledged this with what he called combinatory play. This was his process of letting emotional feelings, sensuous experiences, memories, intuition, and data collide like ingredients in a blender to lead him ambiguously to a surprise: insight and meaning.

Science, since people must do it, is a socially embedded activity. It progresses by hunch, vision, and intuition. Much of its change through time does not record a closer approach to absolute truth, but the alteration of cultural contexts that influence it so strongly. Facts are not pure and unsullied bits of information; culture also influences what we see and how we see it. Theories, moreover, are not inexorable inductions from facts. The most creative theories are often imaginative visions imposed upon facts; the source of imagination is also strongly cultural.

         --Stephen Jay Gould, introduction to "The Mismeasure of Man," 1981

One of the defining—and extraordinary—features of being human is the power of imagination. Whenever the proliferation of numbers impedes imagination, we must relegate measuring to a subordinate place on the leadership food chain. Let the data provide ammunition, not be mistaken for meaning.

The rise of university-as-research has led to a diminished role—though it is making a strong comeback—for qualitative research, aka grounded theory research. This approach springs from intuition and insight, gathering information through experience, stories and events, focused not on numbers but on meaning.

Our most powerful tool for understanding—and especially because it only operates in a social context—is a story. And “the point” of any story is myriad. We understand this when we see a story as a bridge to possibilities, not a data point for The Answer. Management thrives on measurement, leadership on stories.

In her introduction to Rising Strong, Brené Brown quotes an editorial written by Ann Hartman in 1990:

Each discovery contributes to our knowledge, and each way of knowing deepens our understanding and adds another dimension to our view of the world . . . . For example, large-scale studies of trends in marriage today furnish helpful information about a rapidly changing social institution. But getting inside one marriage, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? richly displays the complexity of one marriage, leading us to new insights about the pain, the joys, the expectations, the disappointment, the intimacy, and the ultimate aloneness in relationships. Both the scientific and the artistic methods provide us ways of knowing.

       --Brené Brown, Rising Strong, pp xii-xiii


What about leadership?

The lure of numbers is offset by the limits numbers place on understanding.

How often have you asked someone how their child’s doing in school and the answer is ‘Great! She’s got a 3.4 grade point average.” That’s like saying, ‘Oh, I love my husband. He’s at least an 8.2.’

These kinds of comments are about quantities. How about if you asked someone how their child was doing in school and the answer involved no numbers: ‘She’s really started to challenge her teachers and learning to think independently. She’s even pushing back against our opinions, and we're struggling with that, but I think it's good for all of us.’

Perhaps we need to guard against using measurement as a shortcut to avoid vulnerability or a safeguard against the discomfort of accepting that we must look for possibilities, see others’ perspectives as resources. Numbers are a line drawing, dialogue and conversation the colors. The deep and powerful truth is this: unlike any number, real human leadership rests on the delightful ambiguity of aligned, yet different perspectives. Insight over numbers. Conversations over computations.

For an audio version, with a few added insights, just click on the link below, which will take you to the Learning Chaos Podcast. Enjoy!


About the author

Mac Bogert is President of AZA Learning and a regular columnist for the Learning Counsel. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, he is a musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer and author of Learning Chaos.

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