Performance Perspectives Blog

“the sort of precision that gave one confidence”

by | Nov 23, 2011

My son, Douglas, gave me Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for my birthday. And while I don’t often read novels, the review in the WSJ painted it as a book I should read (it likened it to The Great Gatsby, and after finishing it I can see why). Given that performance measurement is our passion, it’s not surprising that I found inspiration within this text for a post.

In describing how a waiter poured three martinis, such that there was just enough to fill each glass with great exactitude (with not a drop too much, or too little), the narrator remarked how “It was the sort of precision that gave one confidence.”

This line reminded me of something Roger Lowenstein wrote in his best seller When Genius Failed, about Long-Term Capital Management: “Long-Term did not merely concede the possibility of loss, it calculated the supposed odds of it occurring, and to precise mathematical degrees…The point was, Long-Term predicted the odds with precision.” (emphasis in original) And no doubt, this precision gave LTCM’s investors confidence in those who managed their money.

When a pilot informs the passengers that he expects to land at “about 5:17,” the mere fact that he didn’t round to the nearest five (i.e., 5:15) suggests a high degree of confidence, in spite of the qualifier, “about.”

Precision implies accuracy and confidence, which isn’t always valid. One should think about how far they want to go with the precision of their reporting, if the numbers are based on approximations, estimates, preliminary information, etc. Sometimes qualifying language is in order, to guard against confidence that might be misplaced.

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