The Hegemony of Large Numbers – Ignoring Common Sense

Ok, maybe I’m stretching the meaning there, but that’s a cool sounding title, and what I see as an interesting phenomenon. People get excited about Large Numbers, and think they have meaning and importance simply because they are Large Numbers.

Law of large numbers
The Law of Large Numbers ...

Big Errors

For example – years ago, when an application manager was whirling around the office in a minor uproar, worrying that that someone accidentally keyed in a $1B line item on an invoice.

That’s $1,000,000,000,000 – for the Unit Price.

Well, come on, that number is so ludicrously high, the error condition sticks out like a sore thumb. A single order like that is 1000 times our annual sales, for goodness sake – no one would let an error like that get all the way through to the month-end closing documents, or the daily sales report, or the AR reports. And no one would believe it if they saw it there.

So just calm down and reverse the error – maybe add a little data entry validation to prevent another such “catastrophic event”. (Note – this was in the days of the S/36 and the AS/400 – the user tabbed out of the data entry field, didn’t use field exit).

We should be more afraid of the small data errors – what if you mistakenly introduced a 10% error by transposing a few numbers – what happens then? Cranky customers, lots of backing out, and a difficult needle in the haystack to find.

Big Benefits

Projects these days need lots of business justification to prioritize above the many others vying for attention. But a benefits statement that claims $100M in costs aren’t getting allocated correctly? Where’s the real benefit here? Not $100M, but making the overall profitability of the products or customers in question more accurate. Not a lot of quantifiable benefit there – but $100,000,0000 looks so impressive.

Or maybe the classic “sales force automation” justifier. If I can make my sales reps just 1% more productive, and annual sales are $100M, then surely we can justify spending $1,000,000 on the Fancy Software System. The big numers make for compelling math – but will you get the sales force to commit to the incremental revenue? A difficult task, typically.

Common Sense Helps

Everyone is busy, everyone working hard and trying to make things happen – and unplanned interruptions or competition for scarce resources (including time!) can lead to interesting reactions to such Large Numbers. Unfortunately, most folks also do not have enough time to pause and reflect on the reality that those numbers are trying to express. Realistic? Rarely.

Just count to 10 … slowly …
(that’s not too large of a number …)

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.