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Catch Jack!

April 18, 2016

“Compared to what?” are among the most frequent words I hear when presenting results to my surveys, and rightly so. In so many aspects of our lives, we can measure our performance and progress only in relative terms.

On a 5-point scale, knowing that a school scores 4.1 for agreement with the statement: “School X makes a significant contribution to the development of my child’s character and values” is of limited value if presented in a vacuum. The same is true for: “School X promotes a love of learning in my child” and also “I view School X as a transformational experience for my child”.

If I told you that 20% of parents at your school assessed “emphasis on leadership development” as “too little,” how would you react? How could you react, without knowing how it compares. How does it compare to other schools? What’s the high score, low score, average score? What’s the standard deviation?

How does it compare to what you saw in the comparable survey of your school’s parents, conducted three years ago? How does it compare, within this survey, crossed by tenure with the School? How does it compare across grades at the School? How does it compare for those families whose children are actively engaged in athletics or clubs or theatre or dance? By gender of the child? By whether the parent is a volunteer at the School?

Good or bad, how strongly is this measure associated with reported overall satisfaction?

In short, context is everything. From where I sit, data in a vacuum might just as well be sucked into the canister mounted on my garage wall. It means nothing and should be assigned no value whatsoever.

We compete in almost everything we do, with others and with ourselves. Data is just a yardstick by which to measure our progress. As Drucker is often quoted, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

In my work, it gives me no end of joy to discover quantitative measures that capture the many so-called immeasurable aspects of human existence. Soft measures, some call them… the touchy-feely… and generally considered immeasurable. Not so, I say, and I prove it every day. In a survey of students, from 100 different measures, I can tell you what most strongly ties to agreement with the statement: “I feel that I am part of the school community.” By dissecting data, we can see what it means to say, “There is at least one trusted adult I can talk to at school.” What else does it mean when a student says, “I feel encouraged to express my opinion”? Or, “I feel emotionally safe”?

Here’s the thing. Unless we endeavour to measure what we do, so often, our energy is wasted, and we’re left spinning in circles. Pick an objective. Break it down and figure out which sub-factors most contribute to success in achieving that objective. Then set a timeline and go for it. Measure, re-calibrate, and repeat as required along the way. Life is a journey.


On the personal side, “Catch Jack” is just one measure assigned to gauge my level of fitness. I have many. Here’s another. How many push-ups can I do consecutively before collapsing on the floor? Fifty-seven, achieved just yesterday, with a total of 350 for the day. How many could I do six months ago? Just five… with a torn rotator cuff. Why did I stop at 57? Well, aside from the fact that my triceps were seizing up in an overdose of lactic acid, that’s the figure I found online to indicate the ‘excellent’ category for 17-18 year olds. Mind over matter. So what now? Fifty-seven was yesterday’s target. Now, it’s just a footnote in history. So what’s my new target for consecutive push-ups? Add one each week for the next year. Why? Because that will put me over 100 by my 60th birthday. Why? Because it’s there… no other reason. Never quit. Never give up. Never give in. Never stop learning. Never stop improving. Never stop measuring. Never!

So, who is Jack? Jack is just one of the guys I play pickup hockey with on Mondays and Wednesdays. Jack is the fastest skater on the ice, by a fair margin. Jack moves like he has rocket boosters strapped to his legs. When he’s on my team, I do my best to chase up behind him on breakaways, hoping to gather any loose rebounds that may come my way. When he’s on the other team, the best I can hope for at this stage is to anticipate Jack. At present, there’s no way I can catch him. Once he’s gone by, hockey for me becomes a spectator sport.

“Catch Jack” is just a summary objective I’ve given my personal trainer at the gym… to which he replies, “Let’s do it!” Now, as for any objective, we have to break it down and figure out how to get from here to there. Then measure, measure again, recalibrate, and measure again.

Oh, by the way, Jack is just twenty-one years old. That’s a spread of 38 years… call me insane. A close friend of mine tells me it can’t be done (mistake #1 – never tell me that!) and feels that I may end up measuring progress on this one by how fast they get me to the cardiac ward. He may be right, but I’ll have no regrets and, for sure, I’ll have lots of fun trying.

Life is a journey, indeed. Life is good… by any measure.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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