Motivational Perspectives: Success on What Scale?

By Barry Maher

The Filling the Glass strategy of changing the scale should be about gaining perspective, getting a better look a reality, not obscuring it. Too frequently using an inappropriate scale can hide the reality behind a situation. Mass murderer Joseph Stalin knew this well. “When one man dies, it is a tragedy,” Stalin said. “When thousands die it is statistics.”

An estimated 136,986 individuals died the day Stalin died. Most of them better than he was—more successful at being human beings. Numbers don’t die. Numbers don’t go hungry, numbers don’t suffer. Individuals do. One by one.

Numbers are meaningless unless put into a scale, a context. Is $30,000 a lot of money? For a second-hand Yugo or a Rolls Royce? Since this was orginally written in a newsletter called Filling the Glass, I couldn’t possibly omit the next story. In 1990, Congressman Jim Rogan was a Deputy District Attorney. He was assigned to prosecute a highly publicized local trial. A man had tossed down ten beers then climbed into his car and killed two women and two children.

After all the evidence had been presented and both the prosecution and the defense had made their cases, the time came for Rogan to give his final summation. Slowly, he rose from his chair. He picked up his briefcase, and without saying a word, walked over to the jury box. He opened the briefcase. He took out glass and a can of beer. He put the glass on the rail of the jury box. Then he opened the can and filled the glass. He took out a second can and a second glass and did the same thing. Then a third. He kept pouring until ten full glasses and ten empty cans lined the rail.

He looked at the accused. He looked at the survivors of the crash. He looked at the jury. Then he snapped his fingers and sat down. Without ever uttering a syllable.

The jury returned a guilty verdict in under 45 minutes.

In What They Don’t Teach You at The Harvard Business School, Mark McCormick relates one of my favorite examples of changing the scale. It happened at Ford Motor Company in the 1950s. Robert McNamara was head of the company, and their finance people were telling them they needed to close yet another plant in order to cut costs. At a meeting of top executives, no one wanted another closure yet nobody wanted to stand up to the numbers men.

Finally, one senior executive asked, “Why don’t we close down all the plants and then we’ll really start to save money.”

That remark and the perspective that came with it turned the meeting around. The plant remained open.

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