This one graphic DOESN’T explain it all

How many times have you been reading Facebook, or your favorite blog or a site like buzzfeed and you see an entry with the title like ‘this one simple graphic explains [insert topic here] once and for all’ or something like that.

These titles suggest to the reader that if you just looked at some problem in a specific way that suddenly it’d all become clear. Of course, the next step is that your democrat or republican friends post these items to Facebook with a helpful comment like “for my [opposing party] friends.” And really, nobody’s mind is changed.

First off, I’m not going to spend much time addressing cognitive dissonance. Reality is, giving someone evidence that isn’t in line with their world views tends to lead to a strengthening of their current views, not a weakening of it.

But secondarily, for any sufficiently complicated topic (which in my world, is pretty much all of them), there is no one graphic that explains it all. And I suspect most of your situations are like that as well. Let me use an example, organizational productivity. We measure effort per function point per industry norms. And we were demonstrating in our “one chart that explains it all” that productivity had improved since a recent change. Except one chart won’t do it. The chart makes the main point, but then we had at least five other charts checking things like the measurement system hadn’t been tampered with, that quality hadn’t suffered as apparent productivity rose, and so on. In IT, most of the things we measure are proxy measures for some outcome we care about. As proxy measures, we always have to worry about the measurement system and unintended consequences of our choices. As a result, no analysis is ever complete on a single chart.

Treat anyone and anything that is explained to you in “one simple chart” with suspicion. If it seems too simple and obvious, it probably is.

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