Thursday, December 11, 2008

Frank Deford, Crazy Stats, and Success

So, I was listening to WUNC Radio yesterday on my way to work. I'd managed to forgot the fact that it was Wednesday, until I heard Frank Deford lamenting the the current state of sport-related stats -- specifically those of baseball. While my first reaction was to wince and scoff, as I listened I realized how true it was ... and how - often while watching a sporting event on TV/web I found myself thinking that somebody in the production van in the parking lot of the stadium was feeding the announcers random bits of nonsense in order to fill dead air.

And then I realized that we do that in libraries (and probably every business) ... maybe not to fill dead air, but we create numbers and ratios and indicators to identify bits of success. Some of it might be valuable ... but many of them are just a distraction.

In his book, The One Thing You Need to Know, Marcus Buckingham talked about how (and I'm paraphrasing here) what we need is not more numbers, but laser focus on the one number that actually means something. Of course, depending on your business, your audience, or your context, that number (and how you measure it) changes.

NC LIVE - the organization for which I work is in the information delivery/usage business ... we provide online content and services to libraries and users of libraries that they can't or don't get elsewhere. When I first started here, I wanted to come up with an elegant analysis plan that would help identify the value and meaning of our existence ... sounds simple, eh? Yeah ... so, two years later we're no closer ...

In reality though, perhaps we've had it all along. Perhaps it isn't a new stat that we need -- a new and elaborate metric we must devise ... No, instead what we need to do is follow one number:


Cost per item viewed per user

We need to constantly measure it with an eye toward how the actions we take, i.e., products we launch, promotional campaigns initiated, widgets distributed, content pieces added, etc., impact that number. We need to set targets before we take action (during planning), and measure how close we get to the target and ask why we exceeded it or missed it. All of our priorities should be set based on the one number, and all team, personal, and organizational performance assessments should use the one number as our guide.

In the end ... Frank was right ... being distracted by the goofy stats will mean that we'll fail to achieve what we could ... and that we will surely lose value and meaning.

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