5th Grade History Taught You the Wrong Way to Lead Your Business


I clearly remember the day; I’m in the 5th grade sitting in Mrs. Crane’s history class. She hands me a test with two columns. On the left side of the paper are names such as Christopher Columbus, and Magellan. On the right side of the sheet are dates like 1492. The instructions were to draw lines from the name to the date in which that person did something important. On occasion, I think back to that day and realize what a waste of time that was. Thirty 5th graders spent time before the test memorizing the names and the dates. As students, we didn’t understand what we were learning or why it was important. Instead of being educated, we were being taught to memorize.

Now how does this tie into Business Intelligence. In companies all over the world, we print reports full of rows and columns of numbers, stats, and business lingo. We bring the structure that we remember from our 5th grade history class to our business meetings. We teach the group to memorize that anything in this column above 10.3 is bad, or the budget growth needs to be 12%. If you ask most of the people in that room what the numbers mean, they couldn’t give you a clear answer. The scary part is that if they don’t know what the numbers mean, how can we expect them to know what levers to pull to the correct a problem?

It is time to move from ‘memorization’ to ‘education’. We are wasting too much time growing large silos and mountains of politics, all because we don’t see our business in context. Context is the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’. Facts like Christopher Columbus/1492 are useless without the context of why he sailed, what he was looking for, and how it could and did change the world. Look at the reports that you run your entire business with, do they show you context. Do they show you the ‘why’ this is important to our customers and our business? Do your metrics show you the levers that need to be pulled and how hard you should pull them when a problem arises? Do you know better than to change everything when a single dot on a chart is telling you the world is on fire? Do your metrics/chart provide a clear road to solving issues that you see? Until we educate our teams using context, we are setting our company and our people up to fail.

So how do we fix this problem? The first step is to look at the metrics that drive our companies, then show the same metrics to our people. Do they all understand the calculation behind that metric, can they all name the levers and who is responsible for each of the levers in each of the metrics? Does everyone understand how each lever will affect the metric? The second step happens the next time you think that your company has a problem. Use one of the many problem solving tools to get to the root of the problem, such as the ‘5 Why Test’ or a ‘Fishbone Diagram’. Complete the test before you blame someone, because blame only builds those silos and political groups. Most problems in companies are not caused by people, but from lack of education, lack of context and lack of understanding of the ‘why’ behind our business.

It's no wonder I was bored in 5th grade and now that boredom has carried on to business meetings. I missed the point in my class and we are missing it companies across America. We have to get back to understanding that our business must focus on creating value that our customers find important. We need to see our business through our customer’s eyes. Then we build metrics in that context. And finally, we define the levers that help us steer the business in right direction and educate our people to think of our business in the customer’s context. Let's stop drawing the line to the memorized answers and focus on the 'why' behind the 'what'.


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