Subjective scoring and other rants

February 16, 2010

I've noticed that the Winter Olympics have rekindled a fascinating discussion here at work … thoughts and opinions on subjectively judged versus non-subjectively judged sports.

Hockey, downhill skiing and speed skating with their purely quantifiable goals (literally) and seconds (chronologically) are vehemently contrasted with figure skating (a subjective sport if there ever were one) and moguls (a quant/qual hybrid… who knew???) where varying degrees of subjectivity factor and sometimes reign. Either the best or worst of both worlds depending on your perspective I guess. My father - a philosophical guy if there ever were one - used to argue that subjectivity in sports was deeply healthy since this subjectivity bred conflict which was where all our passions surfaced anyway. And isn't that what we truly want in our sports???... he argues. ( I see your point but sorry Dad… I'd still like to see the BCS replaced with an 8 team playoff). At the other extreme end of the spectrum in my office are a camp of individuals who a minimum are profoundly frustrated if not offended by subjectively judged sports - to the extent that some argue a subjectively judged activity can’t even be called a sport. And there is a certain appeal, if not elegance to their arguments. From a visceral perspective, first-one-to-the-finish-line wins has a profoundly satisfying finality when compared to a disputed 5.3-from-the-Russian-judge-with-an-agenda-and-cultural-axe-to-grind.


Our ability to operate and navigate comfortably within an ambiguous world is a business imperative and the sign of professional maturity and courage.

Without getting too philosophical it is pretty easy to extend these arguments and sentiments fairly deeply into our professional lives. We generally seek ways to root out the subjective from our decision making process. Quantitative market research, return on investment analysis, Pugh rating and the like all represent technique s to reduce complex, often subjective topics to easily scored values . Who can argue with that? 13% is better than 10% - 8 is more than 6, etc. I feel that as human beings, for a variety of reasons, we are intrinsically "wired" to seek ways to reduce our decision making process to the non-subjective quantitative world.

Upon further reflection, however, I think our ability to both operate and navigate comfortably within an ambiguous world is often both a business imperative and the sign of professional maturity and courage. In business (as in the reset of life), most complicated decisions boil down to a degree of "informed intuition" or using the best available information to develop logical frameworks from which to consider various courses of action. Even highly technical professions such as engineering operate far more in the subjective than most laypeople would suspect. Which concept is the riskiest? Which design will be the most reliable? While developing quantified frameworks for comparison can be tremendously useful in framing discussions in my career I have yet to see a weighted ranking evaluation produce a compelling new business innovation. In the absence of complete information the experienced business professional will use a combination of data, analysis and intuition to frame the discussion and ultimately select a course of action.

So perhaps our business decision-making process needs to take a cue from our sports - or visa-versa-and learn to tolerate, if not embrace, the inherent ambiguity that exists in all complex endeavors. Besides… within non-subjectively scored sports, even though my favorite team may win or lose, that won't stop the Monday morning "we-were-robbed-by-the-ref" whining. It's all subjective anyway…