I’m currently reading Christian Madsbjerg’s excellent and highly recommended Sensemaking. At the core of the book is the proposition that whilst the modern world has become obsessed with what Madsbjerg terms thin data (mostly – numbers), to make sense of the work around us we also need to take account of thick data – emotions, relationships, context – the phenomena around the numbers.
I experienced this distinction first hand at the weekend when I attended the last game of the 2016/17 Premier League season when my beloved Watford played Manchester City.
This season, on a thin data analysis, has been one of nearly unprecedented success for the Golden Boys. It’s fairly certain that, with the injection of the latest wodge of television money into the Football Association, 2016/17 will prove to be the most financially lucrative for the club in its entire history. In terms of league standing we finished 17th in the country – our 7th best finish since the club was founded in 1881. Watford fans should have been smiling.
And yet in the flesh the experience was very different. The circumstances on the day, with a squad devoid of any fit or eligible central defenders looked patch together against one of the most talented attacking teams in the world, let along the country. A 0-5 defeat, the worst home result since the 1950s could have been relatively cheerfully dismissed if the broader context for the game had been better.
A season with a head coach who never was able to connect with the fans, or seemingly live the values of the “family club”, partly because of language issues, partly because of personality. A season in which the club’s managerial talisman, Graham Taylor suddenly passed away, the victim of a heart attack, led to an outpouring of grief and emotion not only in Hertfordshire but across the footballing community in the UK. A season in which a few bright results were interspersed with dismal performances week after week. A season in which Watford fans were wondering what comes next after the successful maintenance of a top-flight league position in 2015/16 (the first time that that had happened since Taylor’s heyday in the 1980s).
Those elements of thick data go someway to explain why the mood in the Vic on Sunday afternoon was, well, just plain odd. And yet analysis of the bare statistics could go no way to explain that misalignment.
The thin/thick data distinction, and an appreciation and analysis of both types, is vital if you want to really understand what’s going on. We mush avoid becoming besotted with the supposed objectivity of numbers as we try to boil the whole of life down to a pseudo-science.