Annual review

Take your pick at the end of the year. It's either review of the past year, or predictions for the coming year or resolutions, or the impossible to avoid 'Sales'. So far I have managed to avoid buying anything in a sale, unless you count a secondhand book from the Oxfam bookshop which was at second hand book price and not an even more cut down 'sale' price. Apparently the UK hit an all-time record this year in the shopping spree that started on Boxing Day.

Boxing Day set a new British record for online shopping, figures showed today as crowds descended on high streets once again for another day of frenzied sales.

While thousands of shoppers queued outside stores up and down the country to get ahead of the game, millions more made the most of tumbling prices from the comfort of their own homes.

Fears of consumers tightening their belts in the face of tough economic conditions were quickly shelved, with an estimated 10 million shoppers believed to have spent about £2.9bn.

I'll take a brief diversion and explain Boxing Day for readers who may not know the term. Boxing Day in the United Kingdom is the day after Christmas Day and falls on December 26. It's also known as St Stephen's Day. There's an interesting explanation of the various traditions of 'boxes' here, from which the day got its name – most often it is the gifts that employers gave their workers, or that held money for distribution to the poor.

Back to topic last week I tackled resolutions so that leaves me with either review or prediction or both (or something completely different). So, I'll do a review but that begs the question – review of what? I was just talking with my daughter about the 'Quantified Self' that is 'self-knowledge through numbers' movement' which on the one hand seems a complete eccentricity, and on the other could yield a lot of information about …. (who knows what?). Clearly the Cross Country train operators are not impressed with the concept because it is a site that they block. (I'm writing this on the train and have just got a message saying "We're Sorry… Access to this site is blocked. If you feel it shouldn't be, please drop us an e-mail at service.")

Oh – but the Wikipedia explanation is not blocked by Cross Country trains so here it is "The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical)." See Gary Wolf's TED talk on it here. (Wolf and Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly created the Web site "Quantified Self" in 2008.)

I could review my year in a quantified self way by all sorts of numerics – miles traveled on various forms of transport, coffees drunk, tweets posted, hotel rooms slept in, words written, books put on my Amazon wish list, emails responded to, emails originated by me, and so on. But I have not got the detailed data to hand as I haven't been tracking it through the year. Nor do I have any idea of what would be useful to track because I don't have a purpose for tracking it. (Unlike a friend who keeps very close track of his blood sugar level to avoid going into a type 1 diabetic coma).

This question on what numbers to track and review is an organizational question too. In many cases I've asked clients what they are tracking, for what purpose, and what they learn from the exercise. Very often they are baffled.

Reviewing the year (or the quarter) by numbers is fine but limited. There is a tendency to be selective in what you pay attention to e.g. financial data over staff retention data which may come at the expense of areas that might yield actionable learning or information.

Reviewing the year by narrative is equally problematic because there are many lenses one could pick to view the same thing through. I'm currently taking a program in creative non-fiction writing which illustrates the multiple lens possibility and Gareth Morgan's book Images of Organization does a great job on this too.

The numbers versus narrative review is interesting in terms of organization assessment and design – because there's a tendency to find narrative that corroborates the numbers – for example if an employee satisfaction score shows low satisfaction then it is easy to find supporting narrative for this.

So how can we review information: numeric or narrative and come up with something that is useful, actionable, developmental, and unbiased. In a rather generalized way two of the reasons for reviewing data is to be able to a) make sound decisions or b) exercise good judgment in the present or the future.

For example, if I track my sleep patterns and know that I wake up feeling tired some mornings and not others, I might review the patterns and their context and work out how to get a better quality sleep, but I might not need numbers to do this I might be able to just work it out from how I feel and what happened the previous day. Or I might be able to change my mental model of what constitutes feeling 'tired' or 'alert'.

Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power, researches the decisions people make in life or death situations and talks about number one systems (experience and intuition) – essentially coming from reviewing and learning from past events – and number two systems (numbers, procedures and checklists). In a very readable interview he explains that 'we need both of those [systems], and we need to blend them'.

I like that kind of sensible pragmatism. In organizational reviews it allows learning via numbers and narrative, and at an individual level it fosters learning through a blend of fact, intuition and experience.
In a partial review of 2012 I know that I have traveled a lot this year (China, UK, Namibia, Sudan, Hungary, Portugal, France, Belgium, US) and beyond that on many forms of transport: plane, car, Megabus, train, bike, foot, taxi, subway, etc. I can see the quantified evidence of this in my passport and expense claims. But I am unable to quantify what I have learned in terms of cultural differences, or how to adapt my theory and practice of organization design in multiple different contexts, or what I have experienced working with so many different people during the year that has taught me so much.

Going forward into predictions for 2013? Personally I am favoring a quote I was sent the other day "The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and their destination. (John Schaar)" with this I don't need to make predictions. But I can have an aim: to learn as I go and building on 2012's experiences making sounder decisions or better judgments than I have in the past – but how will I know I am doing this?

Have you reviewed 2012? What has your review shown up?