Is Your Impact a Plus or Minus?

There is nothing like sports when it comes to record keeping.

Michael Lewis made famous baseball’s obsession with measuring every detail in Money Ball. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame started his career with similarly obsessive baseball predictions.

By far my favorite sports stat is the plus/minus score in basketball. In simple terms, it measures the difference in game score when a player is on the court compared to when they are off. It’s a great way to incorporate everything that’s harder to measure about playing on a team, like influencing the intensity of play, setting up good plays before the assist or basket, and great defense.

Two current college basketball players illustrate what the plus/minus score can tell you: Travis Trice from Michigan State and Justise Winslow from Duke. Here’s how they performed for the 2014-2015 season.

Trice vs Winslow

Trice clearly outperforms Winslow on total and average points. However, the plus/minus scores reveal something else. Winslow appears to have a stronger impact on the performance of his team when he is on the court; on average, Duke was ahead of their competitors by 12.1 points when Winslow was playing. When Trice was on the court, Michigan State was up only 9.1 points on average.

Plus/Minus measures the full impact of a player.

In very simple terms, while Trice was able to perform really well himself, he wasn’t necessarily able to elevate the performance of his teammates — or at least as well as Winslow was.

This is a simplistic comparison, I know, and there are dozens of additional stats that should be considered. But I want to focus on the idea of the comparison — I’ll leave the hours of debate to the professionals.

Plus/Minus in the Business World

In the business world, we make those same impact distinctions every day. I often wonder: How does the quality of a sales call change when I participate? Am I more or less likely to gain participation in an internal initiative than someone else? Are people I manage more or less likely to perform well?

Hard numbers reveal patterns in a way anecdotal feedback can’t.

At a wider level: When a piece of marketing content is shared with a prospect, are they more likely to buy? Is that content likely to shorten or lengthen the sales cycle?

We all instinctively make those assessments daily. I have, however, often been surprised how harder numbers reveal different outcomes from what the anecdotal feedback suggests.

A Case In Point

Last year I compared the perception clients had of a product with the lead account manager responsible for the relationship. I looked at direct client feedback and ratings, as well as product usage by the account, comparing them all to the account manager “in play” at the time.

It turns out who the account manager was made a difference, which I expected. But, what the numbers helped illuminated beyond my gut feeling was who, specifically, had the strongest impact. Those were the people I followed up with to understand what they were doing differently. I then was able to put a plan in place to improve the performance of everyone based on those findings.

For example, knowledge of the product turned out to be a big differentiator so we implemented group training, self-service learning, and a process for answering and documenting product questions. Additionally, we started direct communication efforts to mitigate any gaps.

Plus/Minus Drives Outcomes

At Primary Intelligence, we also do a type of plus/minus comparison when determining what drives an outcome. We look for gaps (differences) in ratings across key product, company, and sales influencers to derive which areas most commonly see a difference. From that we can answer which “players” have the most positive or negative influence on your game score. You can know what to work on to win more deals.

Outcome Reasons widget

The Next Evolution in Plus/Minus

In the end, the possibilities of what to measure with this method are nearly endless. It tells you how a variable increases or decreases the result. That’s why I like it — it takes the good and the bad to find the net result, giving a fair perspective on influence.

Interestingly, basketball is now slowly shifting to a “real plus minus” which tries to better isolate the player’s impact from the quality of teammate, strength of schedule, and myriad other nuances of the game. It could be an interesting evolution.


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