Minding My Own Business

Managing Subjectivity

September 8, 2005

You may recall the signature scene in the movie Dead Poets Society in which Robin Williams, playing the inspiring high school professor Keating, directs one of his students to read aloud the preface to the poetry section in their anthologies.

"If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness. A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great."

After passionately ridiculing and discrediting this ludicrous method of literary analysis, Keating has the students tear out the transgressing introduction from their textbooks, shocking them but ingraining in them the understanding that subjectivity is not quantifiable. That such seemingly fundamental logic is not universally practiced is conveyed later in the film when, after Keating has been fired, the stodgy headmaster who replaces him asks the students to turn to what he considers to be one of the finest essays ever written on how to properly appreciate poetry - only to find that particular section missing from all of their readers.

As business people, we are used to managing and making decisions based on data. Quarterly revenues. Press speeds. Raw material costs. Turnaround times. Compensation packages. Production efficiencies. Heck, entire movements are based around data collection and analysis: Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, TQM, to name a few. We inundate ourselves with data in all its forms, and bestow upon it immense importance. Lifetimes are spent absorbing and cataloguing the information, and in some cases, even transforming the data into useful formats where it can be utilized it to aid decision-making. When it comes to the assimilation of information of any kind, the managerial reflex is to think in linear terms; those areas that don't lend themselves to linear analysis tend to elicit discomfort.

But the reality is that, outside of accounting, the business world is rarely categorically linear. Virtually every digit of objective data is produced within a context that requires a perspective that is usually in some way subjective. For example, press speeds and waste factors may be measurable, but they are not the only factors. Degree of job difficulty; operator skill level; type, condition, and age of press; and raw materials are just some of the variables that contribute to the subjectivity of the data.

The effective management of subjectivity is absolutely critical to the success of any enterprise. Hiring and firing decisions and personnel reviews are the most famously subjective areas, but in the day-to-day operations of a business, subjective analysis is everywhere. Choosing which vendor from whom to purchase involves more than just cost, delivery, terms, and quality. Confidence is a major subjective element to the decision. Quality control can be measured; quality cannot. Color can be measured; choice of color cannot. It is remarkable that a discipline such as business, so quantitative in nature, demands the mental dexterity of qualitative analysis.

But it is not just the worlds of commerce and manufacturing that rely so heavily on the subjective. In fact, everyday life is filled with efforts to quantify the subjective and the resulting controversies of subjective decision-making. It was just a few years ago when the Canadian figure skating duo of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier were victimized by corrupt judging made possible by a scoring system not all-too-dissimilar from the aforementioned poetry graphing in Dead Poets Society. And figure skating scoring is downright scientific when compared to boxing, where three judges keep separate hidden scorecards based solely on their opinions and without universal standards. Speaking of pugilism, what about beauty pageants, where even with a list of requirements and judging factors the results are ultimately completely subjective?

The illusion of objectivity

Let's move out of sports and entertainment and into other arenas. In politics, the entire underlying structure of a democracy - elections - is based on the subjectivity of the voters.

Jury consultants charge enormous fees to assist lawyers in selecting the most favorable jury for their case, but these consultants certainly offer no guarantees. How can they, when ultimately a case is won or lost on the subjective conclusions of a group of observers? Let's face it - our entire legal system is based on the contradictory premise of the objective subjectivity of jurists and jurors in their application of the law.

The effective management of subjectivity is critical to the success of any enterprise. Hiring and firing decisions and personnel reviews are among the most obvious subjective areas, but there are plenty more. Choosing which vendor from whom to purchase involves more than just cost, delivery, terms, and quality - confidence is a major subjective element to the decision. Quality control can be measured; quality cannot. Color can be measured; choice of color cannot.

As a manager, your responsibility is to maintain complete objectivity. But as in the case of a judge or juror, objectivity is in reality an illusion. Subjectivity is the hallmark of humanity. The challenge we face is not to rein in subjectivity, but to recognize its inevitability, embrace it, and combine it with any relevant and credible objective data to achieve the most accurate context for effective decision-making.

Hard data is a funny thing; it can be manipulated. Like firing a gun at a blank wall and then drawing a bull's-eye around the bullet hole, there is frequently so much data available that any opinion can be effectively supported. Opinions, on the other hand, are the epitome of the subjective, and still we make some of our biggest decisions with the farthest-reaching implications based on gut feelings.

Of course, if you are a subordinate, standard "CYA" protocol demands securing data to defend all of your decisions - or making decisions only when the data is unequivocally supportive. This thought process reduces creativity at the very least, and when institutional in nature, ensures organizational decision making of the poorest kind.

Beware of numbers

So how can we manage subjectivity? As a first step, accept the fact that you might never know for sure if you got it right. In fact there might not be a right or wrong - just a better or worse. Then, engage in brainstorming, generating good old-fashioned Socratic dialogue among your relevant employees. If you have trouble getting subordinates to contribute ideas for fear of contradicting superiors, bring in a professional facilitator to lead the discussion.

Here's a different perspective: As a general rule, be wary of living by numbers alone. Numbers are usually achieved within a context, and that context is usually ripe with subjectivity. For example, is your best press operator the one who produces the highest profit from his or her press? Or is it the one who produces a solid profit off of the most difficult press on the shop floor? Do you rank your customers by sales volume, total profit, profitability, or quality of the relationship? Are your highest paid employees your most valuable workers? Numbers are a tool - just one analytic arrow in your quiver of evaluation.

Most important, be conscious of the ridiculous. Like attempting to plot poetry along X and Y axes. Or valuing seniority over talent or productivity. Or basing million-dollar decisions on financial projections without factoring in real-world variables. Remember that dollar figures in any form - profit, salary, enterprise value - are merely the metric of achievement. They are not the achievement in and of themselves.

And when you find yourself trying to compare non-quantifiables by rating them on a scale of one to 10, just remind yourself of the words of Robin Williams's Professor Keating: "We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry."

Elisha Tropper is president of Prestige Label Co., of Burgaw, NC, a CFG company, headquartered in New York City.