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The numbers game aka “When 1 + 2 doesn’t = 3!” (or elephants have 2 trunks)

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I can’t help but observe that folks love their data in India… lots of lovely numbers, preferably in pretty charts or graphs. Which are generally accepted as ‘truth’ and ‘correct’.

When I contrast the work I do in India vs say Indonesia or Malaysia, there is generally a wealth of data tracked and reported by companies here compared to sometimes quite limited data points in other markets.

But here is the thing, it can be absolutely maddening if you have to DO something with those lovely numbers.

Because, you see, 1 doesn’t necessary mean 1 and 2 doesn’t necessarily mean the 2 you think it does so as a result when you try to put them together you don’t get 3 but instead 4 or 5… and that result definitely does not match that other figure from another report or source that is supposed to be the same thing!! Arrrghh!!

During a recent project, I was reminded of this – full force! With much angst, long hours and considerable effort required for things that should have been simple to provide, understand and then use effectively.

Why? It seemed no one had ever probed deeper into the numbers. They were simply accepted. At the board level.

Yet as soon as I attempted to compare those lovely statistics across different reports and distribution channels, then attempted to validate with my own calculations, sense checking what I found during a diagnostic, nothing added up.

So I had to go back – asking what may have seemed like extremely obvious things but revealed quite different assumptions and completely different methodologies which meant those pretty numbers presented for years were actually not correct… or more precisely were correct only if the different definitions, assumptions and calculation methodology were disclosed.

Without such disclosures, one side looked really healthy whereas the other side looked like complete laggards… which when using the same definitions, assumptions and calculation methodology provided a slightly different picture. Hmm…

In another case, it was a classic ‘elephant’ scenario… each was busy describing the tail, trunk, leg and other body parts in isolation. So while the elephant trunk is a trunk and correct exactly as described on its own, when asked to show the elephant as a whole (i.e. put the pieces together), two trunks were added, making for a rather strange looking elephant.

Except just as this potentially misleading elephant photo proved, when the image is questioned and examined further rather than simply accepted as a freak of nature, another story (or in this case another elephant!) is revealed.

Had I simply accepted that elephants can have two trunks and reported this marvel at the shareholders meeting, we would have missed completely the 2nd elephant and continued to perpetuate the myth of the exceptional two-trunked pachyderm!

In a land where creative accounting is an art form and there is an army of experts to help dodge taxes, it is no wonder that blindly accepting numbers as fact without checking and making the effort to understand in context is a dicey thing.

This is not just in a corporate context but political too. Just take Scroll’s recent ‘fact check’ articles on the Prime Minister’s Independence Day address… or assertions on the effectiveness of demonetisation. If you probe a little deeper, do not accept ‘facts’ and ‘data’ at face value, an alternate perspective emerges.

In fairness, the complexity and range of variables found in India means simple measures may not be sufficient. That is a large part of why trying to neatly fit things together isn’t so easy.

I have a great deal of respect for the calibre and quality of the people at the companies I work with and an appreciation that the reality may be (and often is!) different than someone externally expects.

A standard global report or approach may simply not account for all the factors. Sometimes what it takes is creating a bridge between the two that helps provide the context or story so that everyone can see there really are two elephants.

Living India Tip #4

Moral of the story? The numbers you are given may not be ‘wrong’, however they just may not be ‘right’ as you initially interpret them!

Don’t be afraid to check there isn’t a 2nd elephant hidden behind! And help make it easier for others to quickly spot that 2nd elephant too…

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