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This article was published on March 18, 2021

Why you can’t base business decisions on numbers alone

6 or a 9?

Why you can’t base business decisions on numbers alone
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Founder & board member, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

I absolutely hate it when people disagree with me. Yes, it’s good to get more perspective and ultimately any idea is improved with critical feedback and I do everything in my power not to bully concepts through. But in that exact moment, when I’m stating my case, I can’t believe the other person can’t see my side of the argument — especially when I think the ‘numbers’ are on my side. 

There’s a great cartoon that very efficiently captures this awkward moment in meetings, when different perspectives clash. The cartoon shows two people fiercely arguing over whether the number on the floor between them is a 6 or a 9… and they’re both right.

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I think many business decisions are hampered because people are looking for the facts and the proof — the absolute truth — so they can make the right decision. Unfortunately, life is more complicated than that. 

You could base all your decisions only on the facts, stats, or A/B tests, but we all know the answers you can get from them are only as good as the questions. They can also be affected by the person asking the question or the purpose behind asking the question.

[Read: Never only hire the smartest people]

Statistics and metrics are often represented as being unambiguous. “Numbers don’t lie!” they yell to your face, holding the printouts of the latest A/B tests between ‘beige’ and ‘beiger’ for your logo. 

That’s one view… but here’s mine: numbers lie like a motherfucker. 

Or rather, they can be made to lie. Numbers are like jelly, taking any form their holder wants to. You can cherry-pick the metric you think shows you the absolute truth, but deep down you probably know that the bigger challenge doesn’t boil down to this one single number.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind owning a shirt that says “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” with an asterisk behind statistics for “facts, numbers, and A/B test results” (quick note to self: start selling those).

The truth is life is fluid and unpredictable, and even the simplest decision can have a thousand variables that all impact the outcome and complicate the plot. 

How much would you pay for this? Asking for a friend…

You could decide to only rely on facts or trust the numbers, or you could dig deeper and look into why you put your belief in this particular metric in the first place. 

Is there something outside this number that made you reach your conclusion? If there is, it might make your argument even stronger, as nothing in life can be explained by a single number. Or it could unveil you were actually approaching the problem the wrong way.

At the end of the day, your 6 could very well be my 9 — it all depends where you’re coming from.

Can’t get enough of Boris? Check out his older stories here, and sign up for his newsletter here.

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