Thinking About Numbers The Right Way

Michael Metzger

Aaron Hurst believes that, in 20 years, the pursuit of purpose is likely to eclipse other models, such as the Information Economy. Maybe—but it would require thinking about numbers the right way. And that would require the right infrastructure.

Hurst is author of The Purpose Economy, a new book heralding a new economy based on purpose and, hopefully, eclipsing competing models such as the Information Economy. He cites examples such as Richard Branson’s B Team, a coalition embracing what they call Plan B: “a plan that puts people and the planet alongside profit.” Hurst quotes books such as Martin Seligman’s Flourish that redefines not just what drives employee productivity, but what gives them a sense of purpose.

I hope Hurst is right. However, for purpose to surpass present economic models, we’re going to have to think about numbers the right way. In 1963, William Bruce Cameron, a professor of sociology, addressed this in his textbook, “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking.” In it, he wrote:

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

It would be nice if we could enumerate everything. But we can’t. A company’s purpose, for example, is difficult to quantify. Yet, companies have to measure purpose, if they’re going to it seriously. It’s widely recognized that whatever an organization systematically pays attention to and measures becomes its culture.1 If a business doesn’t measure purpose, it won’t be part of its culture—no matter what the website says. So how do we measure purpose? Become an ambidextrous organization led by right-brain leaders.

Charles O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman coined the phrase ambidextrous organizations.2 Professors at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford and Harvard Business School, respectively, they recognize executives face two challenges—exploring new opportunities while exploiting existing capabilities. Organizational ambidexterity is being equally adept at doing both, just as human ambidexterity is being equally adept at using both appendages, such as both hands. Pursuing purpose requires exploring new ways to see numbers, and that is a function of the human brain’s right hemisphere.

Recent findings from neuroscience indicate that only the right hemisphere has an intuitive sense of numbers and their relative size.3 It can hold in tension a triple bottom line of people, profits, and planet. This is how ambidextrous companies think about numbers the right way. They rely on the right hemisphere’s perspective to see numbers in cultural context, since the right is “broadly vigilant” and sees the big picture.

The left hemisphere, by contrast, has precision, but it has no intuitive sense of context. The left looks to maximize profitability and shareholder return, which is not a bad thing but it is binary. The left thinks like Kevin O’Leary in Shark Tank. “I look at business as binary: either you make money or you lose money.”

Ambidextrous organizations are not binary—either/or. They are both/and—right/left. But the right leads the way. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist cites findings from neuroscience indicating the brain’s two hemispheres compete with each another in a winner-take-all contest, trying to “get in first” and control the thinking process. If the right “wins,” it includes the left. However, if the left “wins,” it excludes the right. There’s evidence that most organizations today are left-brained, exploiting existing capabilities but ignoring new ways to think about numbers. Pursuing purpose requires the right hemisphere “winning,” leading the way and helping organizations think about numbers the right way.

The actual infrastructure for doing this is a roundtable. Its circular set-up mimics the right/left reverberating action between the brain’s two hemispheres. The right plays the role of wise sage and “devil’s advocate.” In King Arthur’s Round Table, Merlin was sage while Dagonet played court jester. They provided outside perspectives. The left hemisphere represents the noble knights as well as the king. They’re insiders. Only a complete roundtable is capable of seeing numbers in context and pursuing purpose. It’s the most likely way we’re ever going to think about numbers the right way.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, Third Edition (New York: Wiley Publishers, 2004).
2 Charles A. O’Reilly III and Michael L. Tushman, “The Ambidextrous Organization,” Harvard Business Review, April 2004.
3 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).


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  1. Greetings, Mike. I always enjoy reading your Doggie Head Tilts.

    Robert Kern helped me to see the wisdom of your left/right-brain metaphor for engineering education. If engineers are only taught analytical, left-brain logic to enhance their problem-solving skills, they become commodities in a world that teaches only equations. That’s the “easy” part of engineering even though most engineers think liberal arts graduates take the easy path through college. However, it is the engineer that has a fully developed right brain along with an expertly developed left brain that is able to see the world around him or her to recognize opportunity where technology may be brought to bear that will make life better for people around the world. Unfortunately, engineering education generally does a poor job at overtly developing engineers’-to-be right brains. Left/right-brain engineers are the ones that understand new-to-the-world technology and how it might be applied for life-improving purposes. Your article is a great example of why engineering education should change in America to keep our country in the forefront of economic development.

  2. Mike,
    I look forward to your informative writings. You are, as always, spot on with your commentary.

  3. Yep, not everything that fits in a box is a box. 1% on a spreadsheet could be 100% a spreadsheet. Education focused more on assessment for learning than assessment for reporting could improve the culture along with individual empowerment to manage own business rather than serve other businesses.

  4. Excellent Mike,
    Austrian economics keeps this perspective / tension. In addition to your quote of Einstein, one of my favorites: “mathematics has given economics rigor, but alas mortis”,
    Thanks again,

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