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Who's everyone?

"Who's everyone?" Anne asked. Her tone was challenging and while I couldn't hear the other side of the conversation, I knew she was not happy.

I poked my head around the door and Anne waved me in. I sat in the wing-back chair and listened.

"Whenever I hear the claim that "everyone" is doing something, or "everyone" is saying something, I feel obliged to ask the question, "who's everyone?" And, let me tell you why.

"I sat at a Boardroom table with twenty other executives. We were working on a staged communications plan to affect a change in the organization.

As we neared the final step, one of the executives spoke up and said, "I am concerned about using email for this effort. Everyone is complaining that they get too many emails from head office." As I looked around the table, I saw heads nodding, it seemed that they too were of the opinion that everyone was complaining about too many emails.

"I had heard this claim before and this time I was determined to get to the root of the problem. I stood up and went to the whiteboard, with a marker in hand, I asked, "Who's everyone?" Please tell me their names.

"It looked like the original speaker was going to resist. When I suggested that all they needed to reveal was the first names of five people who had complained to them, he grudgingly agreed."

"Nancy, Virginia, Blair, Tammy, and Gary," he said. "Anyone else?" I asked. When he shook his head, I moved to the next person around the table. "Who complained to you?" She said, "Blair, Tammy, and Nancy; I can't think of anyone else." The next person blurted out, "Nancy. Only Nancy complained to me."

"And, so it went around the table until all twenty of the executives had provided the names of up to five people who had complained to them. I tallied up all of the mentions and what do you think I found?

  1. Few of the executives could even name five people.

  2. The ONE person mentioned most often was Nancy and she had managed to complain to every single one of the executives present.

  3. There were only five complainers identified.

"Think about that. In a company with twenty executives and more than three thousand employees, five people were "everyone."

"If I had asked each one of them how many people had complained to them, we might have thought that there were more than 50 complainers. By identifying who complained, we determined that only five people had complained to these executives about getting too many emails from head office."

"The point of identifying the source of the complaints by name was not to point fingers or place blame but to point out the folly of relying on anecdotal evidence. In this instance, it was clear that Nancy had lobbied every single one of the executives about something that she found bothersome.

"And, without going through the exercise of identifying the actual number of complaints from each source, the executives would have made an unfortunate decision based on flawed evidence."

As she put down the phone, I could see that Anne was satisfied that she had demonstrated the necessity of making evidence-based decisions using accurate data. Next time you hear about "everyone," doing or saying something, I hope you too will ask the question, "Who's everyone?"


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