Tuesday 20 March 2012

I was just guessing at numbers and figures...

In a team meeting in the office today, we were discussing the results of an annual staff "so, how are you feeling about things" survey. As I’m sure you can well imagine, every year at about this time, management is keen to call a number of meetings to talk over the results and to pay a little lip service to how much they value our opinions and how we’re all going to work hard to make sure that we’re in a better place this time next year.

Generally speaking, there are two approaches that people take to this survey:

1) You can just score positively in all questions as you believe it will cause you less hassle and endless, pointless navel gazing in the long-run (and I’m looking at you, mister 100% GJ…. Honestly, that’s about as convincing as the result in an Iranian election...).

2) You can answer honestly and hope against hope that we might actually do something about anything this year.

I’m never going to do 1) above, obviously.

Anyway. The scores come back as percentages: %strongly agree, %strongly disagree, %positive, %difference to last year’s score, etc.

In my team meeting, my boss was talking over with us some of our results:

MY BOSS: “So although only 53% of people have scored positively in that question this year, I still believe that’s an improvement on last year’s 59%”


ME: “That can’t be true. A percentage is, by definition, a directly comparable number.”

MY BOSS: “Yeah, but I’ve got a larger team this year.”

ME: “But the percentage figure takes that into account”

MY BOSS: “But more people might have scored positively this year….”

ME: “But a percentage figure takes that into account as a proportion of the whole. A smaller proportion of your team are scoring you positively in this question. How can that be an improvement?”

At this point, my boss clearly decided that, although he couldn’t see the point I was making and clearly didn't think I was right, he wasn’t going to have this conversation in front of the rest of the team and moved on.

It’s not just me though, right? No matter how many people are in your team from year to year, a percentage figure like this is directly comparable. Right?

Now, I’m not a mathematician by any means, but that’s pretty basic, isn’t it?

No wonder our budgets are screwed.

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