Water Cooler: Overcoming “Meh” Toward Data in Hockey and Government

Posted on April 22, 2015

Rae Buckley, Town of Chapel Hill, NC, Assistant to the Manager for Organizational and Strategic Initiatives, used sports to highlight organizational strategies.

Overcoming “Meh” Toward Data in Hockey and Government


by Rae Buckley, LinkedIn

Have you ever tried to watch an ice hockey game on television?  If you are new to the game you might wonder, what’s happening?  What’s it all about?  I can say from experience that there is a  steep learning curve for the novice hockey fan.  Action in hockey is continuous with players cycling on and off the ice every two minutes.  For the un-initiated, the play can seem disorganized and messy with the definable action points being a fight or a score – neither of which happens very often.
It does get easier if you watch enough games.  But some of the problem for the newbie is that until recently, hockey has had a scarcity of statistics that help you follow the action. There is the number of penalties, shots on goal, and the score, which rarely exceeds three or four goals.  In a low scoring sport that means it’s hard to tell exactly what is happening throughout the game, and who is doing well and who is not.  Compared with baseball and football, hockey does not tell its story well through metrics.
This problem feels familiar to me as someone in local government who is trying to develop performance measures that help our stakeholders understand the value of our services and whether we’re doing well or not.  So it has been interesting to me to watch the NHL grapple with this issue and see how they work it out.
nhl-95-swingers-oWhat I have found is that there mixed feelings about stats in the NHL.  On one side, you have people pushing to develop more metrics and data about the game so they can tell the story about the game better.  The reasons for doing this are similar to what we hear in local government. First, the business of the NHL is creating and engaging fans that want to come to games or watch them on TV. When people don’t understand what’s going on, they don’t do either of those things.  In local government, our business is serving the residents and visitors of our municipalities.  When they don’t understand what’s going on they don’t particularly want to increase their investment and they don’t partner with us to solve community issues.  So cool.  We’re in.  Metrics help us engage the community in our work.
Now the second reason the NHL is turning more to data analysis is that many newer coaches, team owners, and general managers believe that statistics can be used as both a performance measurement and a predictive tool to help you win more and lose less.  However the idea that stats can help you win games is where one side runs up against resistance in the NHL.
I think the resistance is a really interesting parallel to local government. The reaction of what I’ll call old school hockey coaches and analysts to using statistics sounds eerily familiar to a department head that has no interest in establishing or tracking performance measures for their department.  Listen to this statement from Globe and Mail hockey columnist David Shoalts, who warns that hockey doesn’t lend itself to statistics:
“Right now, you see these guys on Twitter. I suppose it’s dangerous to paint everybody with the same brush, but there are just a few too many of them for my liking that think they know everything now about hockey, and that we poor slobs who have been around a number of years and still depend on our eyes to tell us what’s good or bad about a certain game or certain player, we’re just too myopic and dim to really understand the brilliance of these stats.”[1]
I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot like some folks in local government who feel resentful of nerdy analysts and see all these performance measures, analytics, and metrics as the priorities of upper management and not the people who are actually doing the work.  I have personally heard every variation you can imagine on the theme of “these are measures for YOU to use not measures that we can use when we’re out in heat and cold at all hours doing the work.” And, “how do I know I did a good job?  Because my back hurts and I have blisters.” And, “after working all day I have to turn around and fill in a log book about how many square feet of grass I mowed for some suit in air conditioned office?”
Have you heard variations of this sentiment?  I hear it at work and I guess that’s why I pick up on it when I hear it in the hockey world too.  I’m convinced that we have to address this resistance to performance measures if we want to use them in local government to improve our game.
9hnxxeMany hockey coaches are former players just as our division managers are often people who have worked their way up from front line staff.  And our division managers, just like a coach, are responsible for the performance of the team.  So how do we demonstrate the value of data to this group?  In management, we buy in because we know that today’s discourse requires quick stats and 140 character statements.  So we are looking for stats and metrics so that we can use to communicate to our stakeholders and advocate for programs and services.  And that’s great if all we want to do is communicate how we’re doing.
But if we want to use data to improve our performance we have to convince our division heads and line managers of the usefulness of data to their work.   When they ask us how do I perform to the current standards in the do-more-with-less, new-normal economy, we need to have answers to how data can be used to better allocate resources, reduce stress, and produce better results.
Until we can make this case, our data is only going to help us tell the story better and will not lead to major changes in our game.  And so I watch the hockey world because I want to see how they do it.  And friends, they are.  Slowly but surely.  In my next water cooler I’ll talk more about how hockey is using stats to improve their game and about how some rogue super-fans created a metric that has turned hockey on its head.  See you next month!
[1] Advanced stats vs. the old guard: inside the bitter rivalry By: Matt Larkin on August 31, 2014, www.thehockeynews.com

Supplemental Reading

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Water Cooler: Avoiding Replacement Refs

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