Quantation: Don't Blame Your Audience

Jun 26, 2014

This week I had the privilege of presenting at the Institute of Management Accountants Annual Conference in Minneapolis. They are a great audience for my “Painting with Numbers” message and I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the IMA members.

I also had the chance to attend a number of excellent presentations. My favorite was Gary Cokins’ on “Business Analytics for Decision Support and Value Creation.” Cokins is IMA’s Executive in Residence, and has decades of experience in the subject. Perhaps most notably, he was an early pioneer in the introduction of activity-based costing (ABC), a powerful method for properly allocating costs to products, activities, and services.

I had one quibble with Cokins’ presentation, though. Near the end of his presentation, he observed that ABC and other powerful analytical tools haven’t had the widespread adoption that such techniques justify. As explanation, he cited a number of technology and process factors, and described how they could be addressed.

He concluded by citing cultural/behavioral barriers, such as resistance to change, fear of being held accountable, and plain old laziness. But in essence, these arguments blame line managers – that is, the audience for analytical tools – by questioning their motives or their intelligence. These may be valid points, but the audience – that is, the decision-makers – will almost certainly respond by arguing that:
  • Advocates of the analytical tools didn’t articulate their points clearly.
  • The advocates did articulate the points clearly, but the value didn’t justify the effort or the expense.
  • The advocates failed to include considerations that change the value proposition.
It’s comforting to blame the audience because “they just don’t get it.” I’ve seen that perspective over and over in my career – quantation is hard for many people to understand. But it’s not an excuse. When that happens, it’s time to go your reports and your presentations and your elevator pitch, and see what can be improved and made more persuasive.

So don’t blame your audience when they don’t understand your message.

Even when you’re right to feel it’s their fault.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable. I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples. Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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