Spreadsheets, seductive fantasy about the real world

How valuable are bar charts, spreadsheets, and all the counting that managers do, when value cannot be reduced to a number?

Nov 2023 | Leadership

Company executives and managers love to count things. Indeed, numbers and charts are the stable diet of boardrooms across every industry.

Our passion for counting

We love to count profits and losses, costs and benefits. We are obsessed with ‘the financials’, in particular with shareholder return, the yardstick of corporate performance for over a century.

We also count work. Think back to Frederick Winslow Taylor, champion of the Efficiency Movement in the early 20th century. Taylor was known for his stopwatch, which he used to reveal tiny inefficiencies in how people did their jobs.

Today, counting remains the lifeblood of management culture. Should we forget to boil everything down to a number, then colleagues, customers, and regulators soon direct our attention to the nearest spreadsheet.

A simpler past

Counting is an attempt to capture individual and company performance – past, present, and future. Numbers help us justify what we did, enable what we are doing, and guide what we will do.

In the past, the world was simpler and all this counting made at least some sense. Most people cared only about the money that companies made – how they made it was of minor importance.

Likewise, many jobs were plain: ‘Screw this widget on to that widget 20 times an hour and the boss will be happy.’ There was little room for failure and employee well-being was not a question.

Disruption brings complexity

Shifts in consumer appetite and societal values have conspired with climate change and technology advances to make business far more complex than it was in Taylor’s day. Executives and managers must grapple with two new realities.

First, society expects companies to do more than merely create wealth. To thrive, business has to help solve climate change, enhance the lives of people, and make money.

Second, individual performance has moved on: rapid widget assembly no longer yields competitive edge. Employees must bring imagination to solve unfamiliar problems, harness complex networks, and adapt at pace.

Proxies, a seductive fantasy

We can, to some degree, assign numbers to environmental, societal, and economic outcomes. We can also measure employee engagement and productivity. But how well do these proxies capture the world we now manage?

When we insist on counting things, on applying a number or a ratio, we create a seductive illusion that reality is easy to control. However, a number, a spreadsheet, or a model is little more than a fantasy.

Ironically, this reductionism obscures how complex variables interact; it blinds us to emerging risks. False confidence then reigns across the business – and it is here that individuals, and companies, fail.

Lead with confidence

The world outside the boardroom is calling for imaginative strategies that generate value for all stakeholders. These in turn demand a more open-minded approach to leadership. Bar charts, spreadsheets, and counting may guide the action we take. But they remain a simplistic narrative about a complex world.

To thrive, managers must lead with confidence into a future that is unknown. In such an uncharted place, the spreadsheet will be an alluring – but nonetheless deceptive – guide.

In Confidence

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