Seek Judgments Not Numbers

Change Pro-Tip:

I try to prioritize getting human judgments — opinions, reactions, feelings — because the quest for numbers holds too many easy traps.

When I go to the doctor, she asks me how things are going. Here’s an answer I never ever give: "2.354".
Could I? Sure. I could take all the numbers from all the parts of me. I could roll them up. I could make a spreadsheet. I could by averaging produce 3 decimal points of precision. I could even weight them.

But I don’t.

Does my doctor take a few numbers from me? Sure. But, at least here in the states, that’s all done on entry, prior to actual consultation. By the time I see her, she already has usually four numbers: height/weight/bp/temperature. They’re easy to get and flag crisis. But the bulk of how the doctor notices change in me is through a complex and very unautomatic business of asking me questions. And there is a reason for that. Because it’s the best way she knows to start helping.

When I’m setting out to make changes, I do that by creating expriments that in turn create experiences. (That’s the next muse in this series.) Going in to that creation process I start the same way. Coming out of that experiment process, I end the same way.

I use conversation to gather inputs — inputs of all kind — from all the directly affected humans. A lot of folks are surprised by this. They want me to start by choosing/inventing "metrics", numerical symbols that are meant to provide a sense of what’s going on.

We live in a time when one of the most powerful of the Idols of the Schema is an over-valuing of the numeric. I call this the cult of the number. This view has so many adherents I hesitate to even call it out sometimes.

The gist has twin planks: 1) universal value: because numbers have been very useful in studying mechanical processes, they must be equally valuable in non-mechanical ones. 2) objectivity: numbers give direct access to reality.

Debating those two propositions is actually out of scope, I think. Nevertheless, I’ll point out that the stance I’m advocating sits in direct opposition to it.

We discussed the other day how the humans in our mixed systems are the superpowerful element, not the processes or artifacts or rules. This is why we must prioritize gathering input from them.

This of course comes down to some pretty hard learning challenges:

  1. learning to ask.
  2. learning to listen.
  3. learning to use.

Learning to ask is the easiest from a "technique" point of view. You have to remember to ask. You have to learn some of the ways in which to make it safe to answer. You have to learn about how trust is developed in spirals rather than lines, and by experience rather than fiat.

Learning to listen was certainly hardest for me to start, and it seems hardest for lots of other folks. I’ve three pieces of advice for the folks just coming to the idea that they even have something to learn.

First: broadly speaking, shut up. Listening is a million times harder to do when you’re making noise yourself. A corrolary: wait. Let your respondent sit with what she’s saying, give it time to unfold.

Second: Find your way past what pain the listening brings you. Part of this is just the first advice being repeated. Part of it is knowing that language is just language, not reality. Part of it is forgiving your respondent. Part of it is forgiving yourself. (My hardest part.)

Third: Listen — sense — past the words. Sense what isn’t being said. Sense the stuff we call "emotional tone". Sense the body. Seek all the messages being sent, which are often multiple and sometimes contradictory.

The last learning you have to do is to learn how to use what you got from the asking.

This one’s just too big to fit in one. We’ve a muse coming soon, about braiding together "better", "T-better", and "I-better". But there’s still a couple of basic things I can say about it.

First, collate it w/o summarizing it. You know how in retros we often gather multiple stickies into related or even identical issues? Do that, perhaps mentally, perhaps physically, and do it by yourself.

Second, think about what part of what you got is exactly what you were expecting, and what part isn’t. The parts that aren’t? That’s important. Weight them heavier in your analysis.

Third, let it simmer for a while. Keep turning it and turning it. If you have a trusted advisor who’s not in it — you need one if you don’t have one — go talk it over.

Fourth, take care of yourself. Whatever you do to re-center, do that. Take a walk. Read some schlocky fiction. Eat well. Take deep breaths.

(Changing things is easy, changing them for the better is hard.)

So. If we come back to the central idea: I seek human input — judgment, opinion, guess, feeling, reaction — around changes because the humans are the superpowerful part of mixed systems, and because numbers aren’t good enough.

I know this one has a lot of gaps and holes in it. I mean, "listen to the humans" could easily fill a whole library, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of it.

But I hope you find it perturbing.

Have a lovely Sunday afternoon! I’m gonna go play.

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