Not everything that counts can be counted … but did you try?

Photo Courtesy: Quote Investigator

Most people attribute this quote to Einstein,

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts

It is repeated with deference by most. There are however alternative theories about whether or  not this quote should be attributed to Einstein or not. That is not the argument here.

The argument is how statements like

“not everything can be quantified”
“not everything can be measured”
“you have to look at this holistically”
“we have been in this business long, we know”

get  thrown around to support decisions made only with lots of hand waving and posturing. Anyone pushing back to ask for data is told about this famous quote by Einstein – “surely you are not smarter than Einstein”, is the implied message I guess.

Let us treat that famous quote as given – there are indeed factors that are relevant to a decision that cannot be quantified. But ..

  1. How many business decisions depend on such non-countable factors? Consider the many product, marketing, strategy, pricing, customer acquisition etc.  decisions you need to make in your job. Do all of them depend on factors that cannot be counted?
  2.  Considering many factors that go into making a decision what is the weight of non-countable factors in any decision? You don’t say 100% of any decision depends on non-countable factors.
  3. How many times have you tried to push through decisions based entirely on non-countable factors (stories?) with not an iota of data?
  4. Finally, have you stopped to check whether what you label as non-countable is indeed so and is not so because of your lack of trying? Are you casting those fators as non-countable either because you are not aware of the methods to count them or because you are taking shortcuts? If you made an attempt you will find most things are countable (How to Measure Anything), be it segment size, willingness to pay or brand influence.

I cannot speak for what Einstein (or someone else) meant with that quote about non-countable things that count. But I am going to interpret that for our present day decision making.

For any decision there are factors that are inputs for it. Some of those factors can be measured with certainty, some with quantifiable uncertainty* and others with unquantifiable uncertainty*. You must cover first, have a model for second and put in place methods to learn more to reduce the third.

Without this understanding if you try to invoke Einstein you are only cheating yourself (and impact your business in that process).

What is your decision making process?


Quantifiable Uncertainty means you can express the uncertainty within some known boundaries. Like saying, “I don’t know what is the click through rate is but I am 90% confident it is between  1% and 8%”

Unquantifable Uncertainty means those factors which are unknown and cannot even be expressed in terms of odds (or probabilities).