The figures *don’t* speak for themselves
Inspired by the fourth Post40Bloggers writing prompt to discuss the topic: “In a world full of uncertainty, write about what you know for sure”, here’s why when anyone says to you that “the figures speak for themselves” your spider senses should start tingling and a red danger light start flashing in your brain. Metaphorically speaking of course. I do know for sure that we don’t have spider senses nor do we have a red danger light in our brain. But that’s a different article.
How many times have you heard someone say that “the figures speak for themselves” as a way of attempting to close down or win an argument? It happens all of the time. Some recent examples (courtesy of the might of my favourite interweb search engines) are:
- Liam Byrne MP (the former treasury minister who left the infamous “there’s no money left” note for his successor in 2010) “The UK jobless figures speak for themselves“
- The Welsh Government – “Most recent international visitor and inward investment figures for Wales speak for themselves” – in an attempt to counter criticism from the Commons Welsh Affairs committee.
- Sir Paul Coleridge – “The figures speak for themselves: traditional marriages underpin a successful society (£)“
People often appeal to figures because they appear to be objective, but all three of these examples are anything but a dispassionate telling of a single, objective truth. For example, Liam Byrne was attempting to use the figures from a recorded rise in the young unemployed by 20,000 in April 2013 to justify Labour’s jobs policy. In the meantime, youth unemployment (and unemployment in general) has fallen again – but I’m prepared to bet that he hasn’t changed his political stance. I doubt that he would even if youth unemployment fell to zero. So it would seem that these figures really weren’t speaking for themselves. Instead, this is an instance of someone taking a set of figures, which are undoubtedly subject to error and uncertainty, and then speaking for them. As are, I would humbly suggest, the other two examples.
I make this point endlessly at work to colleagues and clients alike. These days, rather than cutting code or managing other people for a living, I help people to determine whether or not a particular investment in software and services “makes sense”. Now, I’m a great believer that you must always start with the numbers and create a financial model of the possible risks and returns, but simply presenting a decision maker with a statement that “If you do x, it will realise £y” is never enough.
Instead, you have to use the figures to help your decision maker justify a particular investment in light of the organisation’s own aims and subjective beliefs about its future. For example, if a commercial organisation is single-mindedly focused on growth, then even the best financial case around saving costs won’t get the attention it deserves. The public sector is similar. At the moment, if an investment doesn’t fit the ‘all IT is a commodity’ or ‘open source is the answer to everything’ memes then the overall financial case is ignored, as positioning against either of these trends simply invites ridicule, justified or not.
So I hope I’ve convinced you of one of the things that I know for sure – figures don’t, and never will, speak for themselves.