If you want to create the future, watch the road, not the dashboard.

If you want to create the future, watch the road, not the dashboard.

My friend Nick brought my attention to this post. I know that there is going to be endless post-mortems about the US election for the next weeks and months. This post comes from Adam Geller, within the Trump internal polling community. It tells a different story to what has been common in understanding the American community leading up to the election.

Now I’m not one to criticise the likes of FiveThirtyEight, who are far more expert in understanding statistics and demographics than I ever will be. But they make for a good point of comparison. And they missed something of what Adam saw. Maybe it was the bigger project that Adam had in mind.

Look at the post – it emphasises that in looking at the polling data, you can’t just focus on the top line figures – you have to dig into the data to understand what is going on. It is very perceptive about what was going on in some of those key States.

I think there are several lessons for organisations, outside of analysis of community behaviour and voting.

First, dashboards might give a sense of security, but they are powerless. You won’t often find really useful measures on business dashboards. Much like the top line figures in the polls. And the corollary – if you are looking at really useful measures, they are not likely to be the usual for dashboard measures. More likely they will be idiosyncratic and locally specific. They will be things like the tidiness of the lunchroom, or the enthusiasm of chat between shifts, or absenteeism among a particular team of support staff. They will be things that seem irrelevant to others.

Which leads to the second point: our indicators might indeed be irrelevant! They are a hunch, an intuition. Not an uneducated guess, but one based on deep experience and understanding of the way a community works. Nonetheless, you are unlikely to know for sure that what you are paying attention to will actually build the future you are after. Coming back to the Trump team’s analysis: imagine the election had turned out otherwise. We would all look at the polling teams, shrug smugly and reassure ourselves with the wisdom of conventional wisdom. We can admire their insight now because the plan worked. But they were building into the hope of an uncertain future.

And that leads to the final point, which is obvious, but often overlooked. The trump team were working on a different question from the likes of fivethirtyeight. I won’t know for sure, but we can guess that fivethirtyeight are basically probing “How will people vote?” Trump’s team were asking things more like “What would it take to mobilise this group to vote?” And “Would it make a difference to our campaign to win another percentage point of active voters in this district?” It might seem hyperbole, but they are in the business of creating history, and whether you like the outcome or not, they have created history.

What does that all mean for organisations? Three lessons:

  • Don’t rely on general dashboard measures to give you insight – dig deeper and look for specific, local indicators.
  • Keep your goal in mind – you always need context and orientation for individual indicators.
  • Be flexible but clear about the questions you are asking – they might not be the ones that others are asking if you are aiming to shape the future.