Coach People, Not Numbers


In his fascinating documentary Vietnam, director Ken Burns briefly profiles Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense under John F Kennedy, and Lyndon B Johnson. McNamara focused exclusively on the measurables, believing that everything imaginable should be quantified. “What you measure gets managed,” as the popular saying goes. McNamara took this to the extreme, demanding quantification from his entire agency and developing his strategy for victory in Vietnam with these numbers in mind.

Of course, we know that this strategy, and many others, did not work in Vietnam. In the documentary, Burns attributes much of McNamara’s strategy’s failings to a simple explanation: it was useless, because there was so much data and complexity, it couldn’t be analyzed and no one truly knew what it meant. In other words, McNamara collected data for the sake of collecting data. This idea, that we should make decisions based solely on data, is now called the McNamara fallacy.

With the advent of gadgets and gizmos that allow for quantification of every aspect of life—from sleep to steps to calories burned—the temptation is to track it all.

What often occurs, however, is that we let the numbers dictate our behavior. Instead of focusing on improving as a person, we focus on improving the variable we measure. When we track sleep, the goal becomes increasing the little number that shows up on our watch, only to realize that in so doing, we’ve decreased our quality of sleep due to the anxiety of trying to improve a number!

In coaching parlance, we start “coaching to the numbers,” and not the people. In my line of work (run coaching), we let miles per week, speed of interval workouts, and impact variables dictate our training plan. We all too easily forget that the person standing in front of us is a complex human being that resists the easy quantification and simplicity of any single variable, or even combination.

This isn’t to say that we should all become Luddites, and track nothing. Instead, we need to start not at what we can measure, but at why we are measuring something and how it will impact the bottom line: whether that is performance in a race or work or happiness in our broader life. As eloquently argued in Fergus Connolly’s book Game Changer, our world is dominated by chaos, not predictability, and the quantification of sport often relies on assumptions that we fail to see. If the measurement doesn’t have a true purpose, if it doesn’t bring insight to a malleable behavior, then is it really worth measuring?

Before measuring, I ask three simple questions:

  1. How does this measurement translate into an actionable behavior change?
  2. What assumptions am I making in measuring this variable?
  3. Does it matter?

I’d recommend you consider asking these questions too.

— Steve

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