In a conversation recently I heard the words “activity rate.” This took me all the way back to a conversation I had in Madrid in the mid-90s, and an issue that has come up repeatedly since then.
I was talking to Santi, the Spanish country manager of a big UK medical publisher. He was under pressure from his boss, the Sales and Marketing Director, to up his activity rate; “you have to make sure you spend enough time on the road. Get into all the small towns.”
The problem was, that wasn’t how you sold medical texts in Spain. The way to succeed, and Santi had been very successful, was to understand that in each speciality – gynaecology, cardiology, orthopaedics or whatever – there were two or three opinion leaders. They were the professors who all the other professors in all the other medical schools looked to for guidance. If you wanted to sell your medical books you had to identify the opinion leaders and then concentrate on persuading them to endorse your texts. If they did, then the other professors would follow their lead. But it’s hard to find the time to do this when your boss is pushing you to travel all over Spain trying to meet everyone.
There are different ways of reading this story. It could be about not imposing your local views on how to do a job on other countries where things work differently. It could be about trusting your people to find their own way of getting things done. Or it could be about focussing on results and not methods.
These are all valid perspectives, but I’d like to take another angle. What is the great attraction of activity rates? It seems to me that the attraction, common to all strictly quantitative method, is that they eliminate a leap of faith. You don’t need to trust someone when they tell you that, in their country, things work differently. You don’t need to suspend your disbelief when you see people doing things in ways that seem odd. You don’t need to accept that someone else might know better than you, and that there is no easy way to determine who is right.
I say that focussing on activity rates avoids a leap of faith, but that’s actually wrong. Imposing your strictly quantitative view of the world actually entails a much larger, but hidden leap of faith; that greater objectivity is always better, and that your view of what to measure is the right one. One can look back through history and see plenty of people who held these views and came to grief because of them. That is easy. What is harder is to accept that maybe, just maybe, we are one of those people.