The body count
If you can’t count what’s important, you make what you can count important
In Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic 10-part, 17-hour Vietnam War documentary series, retired army officer James Willbank succinctly summed up the approach senior officials took to measuring the success of military operations. By body count, the US were winning the war, and this metric was used for both political and performance assessment purposes. The reality of who was winning, or who eventually won, was of course somewhat different.
Focusing on what we can count, rather than what’s actually important (whether we can count it or not), is a phenomenon that covers all manner of activities. Take the flimsy science behind the 10,000 steps a day culture, or how businesses scrutinise social media likes, shares and follows, as opposed to what those interactions actually mean.
We’ll all be familiar with this in football too. The media often obsess over possession and distance run statistics – not unlike clubs did 10-15 years ago – without any consideration as to whether they’re correlated with winning. In recruitment, we now have dozens if not hundreds of metrics available to us, and we tend to choose the ones that make the most sense. But how often do we test if the players who score well in those metrics actually perform well for our team (or indeed others), once recruited? In other words, is what we count actually important?
These are the questions we like to ask at 21st Club, and the answers we love to uncover. Acquisition, our recruitment tool for clubs, presents the metrics that we know from research are important. Football remains data-rich but insight-poor; decisions that are supported by wrong assumptions about the numbers can be worse than decisions that don’t use the numbers at all.