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The Disease of Quantifiability
On how leaders can revive the soul of business for the greater good of humanity
Alright, round 2 – First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who read post no. 1 (more than 700 of you) and welcome the 103 subscribers that have joined since!
I had no expectations or benchmark but I’m grateful that so many decided they wanted to read what I write about. Lastly, thank you all for the great feedback and suggestions. I will try bring some of those things to life as time goes on.
Now, for this week, I decided to unearth a draft I had written several years ago on a topic that feels more timely today than it did back then. Maybe slightly controversial, hopefully inspiring, let’s dive right in, because this is a longer post.
The Disease of Quantifiability
In an era dominated by data-driven decision-making, artificial intelligence, and automation, businesses across the globe are increasingly fixated on the quantifiable. The allure of numbers, metrics, and efficiency (and with it the illusion of predictability) has come to define the modern business landscape, sidelining the very essence that makes us human—the values of the humanities.
What’s a business good for if not to create long-term prosperity for many and increase the quality of life in the world we jointly inhabit? In the pursuit of constant measurement and optimization, we risk losing touch with the heart and soul of business, jeopardizing the greater good of the world for short-term shareholder gains.
This is what I call “The Disease of Quantifiability”.
So, what’s the cure, you ask?
First, we can’t further this conversation without acknowledging the fact that unless every leader does the hard, often uncomfortable work to connect to their own humanity, their body and soul, ignorance will set a ceiling as to how far we can collectively advance. And without this post turning into a write-up on individual trauma, destructive personal patterns, and their reflection in how we lead, I will say that after more than 11 years of coaching and personal therapy, that the vast majority of my mistakes and shortcomings as a leader go back to my utter lack of awareness of the patterns that were subconsciously running my daily decisions.
What’s more, when we look at business schools and entrepreneurship programs, we rarely see any effort going into enabling folks to experience their connectedness, their own emotions or how they relate to others on a deeply human level.
I remember vividly the conversation I had a few months ago with veteran theater and performing arts leader Susie Medak and Sarah Rasmussen, the artistic director of McCarter Theater in Princeton, as we were discussing the profound impact theater and acting classes had on me in my teenage years. I carry these impression with me today as I lead, and draw from them especially in situations where numbers aren’t able to show me the way, or where quantification of any data won’t allow me to connect to the root of a problem. And this goes way beyond dealing with people leadership.
Anyone who has ever worked with me can probably attest to the fact that more often than not I listen to my gut, and I challenge my teams to do the same when making both business and people decisions. You can’t play jazz if you’re freaked out by not having a score that prescribes every single note and pause.
We can only trust our “guts” if we have access to our bodies and soul – the deeper layers of “us”. Now, what I landed on when Susie, Sarah and I spoke was: It’s a very scary thing to do for most of us. Because when we connect to who we truly are, we don’t only see the light, we have to accept the shadow equally as much.
That’s not to say that quantifiable data and metrics are inherently evil and / or useless—far from it. Data-driven decision-making has its merits and has led to significant advancements and progress in many fields of business. However, when an organization's entire focus becomes solely fixated on metrics that can be quantified, we start to see a degradation of values and a misalignment with the greater good.
One of the most immediate consequences of the disease of quantifiability is the loss of empathy, compassion, and common sense in business practices. When numbers become the sole driving force, it becomes easy to forget that businesses are composed of people—employees, customers, and stakeholders—all of whom have their unique identities, qualities, stories, and emotions.
The humanities are more important than ever
Encompassing a wide array of disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, arts, and ethics, the humanities are the timeless threads that connect us to our collective human experiences, helping us understand our roots, our values, and our place in the world.
However, these profoundly insightful subjects often find themselves marginalized in the boardrooms and executive meetings of modern businesses, where the obsession with quantifiable outcomes reigns supreme. – After all, don’t we all crave (the illusion of) predictability in increasingly uncertain times?
Empathy is the cornerstone of healthy workplaces, sustainable relationships, and ethical practices. Without empathy, decisions may become ruthless, disregarding the human impact they carry.
Moreover, the humanities offer valuable insights into the realm of ethics and morality. In the relentless pursuit of profit and growth, businesses may be tempted to compromise their ethical principles. The study of ethics in the humanities can serve as a guiding light, steering businesses towards a path that considers not only financial gains but also social responsibility, environmental sustainability, and equitable practices. And, importantly, long-term these are not at odds with financial bottom-line success.
The humanities are also entirely intertwined with creativity and innovation. Creativity is often what sets successful businesses apart from the rest. It is the birthplace of groundbreaking ideas and revolutionary products. The ability to think critically, make connections, and draw inspiration from the arts and literature can elevate businesses to new heights of success and influence. As we’re facing unprecedented challenges to determine our global future, human creativity holds the key to a brighter future.
The humanities foster a long-term perspective that transcends immediate gains. Businesses with a historical and philosophical understanding of their place in the world are more likely to envision sustainable strategies that consider the well-being of future generations. This forward-thinking approach is essential for the well-being of both society and the business itself.
Ok, but practically speaking?
So, how can businesses inoculate themselves against the disease of quantifiability and reintegrate the values of the humanities into their core? Here’s a starting point for what I believe every 21st century business leader needs to deliver to fight the disease of quantifiability:
Integrate humanities deeply into leadership training: From acting classes, to body work and coaching on radical self-inquiry, incorporate modules that deepen understanding of the self, ethics, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking into leadership development programs.
Promote cross-disciplinary collaboration by default: Encourage and reward employees from diverse backgrounds to collaborate and share insights. By bringing together people from the humanities and STEM fields by default, businesses can foster a more holistic approach to problem-solving.
Encourage curiosity and lifelong learning: Foster a culture that celebrates continuous learning and intellectual curiosity. Encourage employees to explore literature, arts, and philosophy to expand their minds and inspire creativity.
Reevaluate metrics and goals: While metrics are essential for measuring progress, businesses should consider incorporating and rewarding qualitative indicators that gauge employee well-being, customer satisfaction, and societal impact.
The disease of quantifiability threatens the heart and soul of businesses, and it creates a world that’s not serving the people living in it. The cure lies within the humanities. By embracing the values of empathy, ethics, creativity, and long-term thinking, businesses can rekindle their human spirit and unlock their full potential. Only then can we create a business landscape that not only thrives economically but also nurtures the well-being of individuals, society, and the world at large.
In increasingly uncertain, fast pace times, moral first principles will serve us best to make long-term net-positive decisions at scale.
Creativity and Taoism: I found this book in our local bookstore and it’s a wonderfully inspiring read both on the actual topic of the Tao, how artists channel it through their work, history, and the disconnect between cultures: https://www.amazon.com/Creativity-Taoism-Chinese-Philosphy-Poetry/dp/B000OM6EYK
Kozo produces some of the best tattoo art in the world: I love both his actual tattoo work as well as his large scale art on canvas: https://instagram.com/kozo_tattoo?igshid=YzcxN2Q2NzY0OA==
The dangerous consequences of sharing photos of your children online: I found this video (published by Deutsche Telekom) to be highly educational and disturbing. It shows the lack of ethical considerations and second/third order effects of the technology we put out in the world at an unprecedented pace.
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