Winnie-the-Pooh, Metrics, and VOI

You don’t want to be like Winnie-the-Pooh, do you? Well, maybe it’s good to be like him in his joy, his friendships, and his love of a simple life — but when it comes to metrics, he really is a bear of Very Little Brain.

Pooh Bear demonstrated an inability to distinguish between raw data and information that might be truly valuable, in at least one instance:

Winnie-the-Pooh counting honey pots, by Ernest Shepard

Pooh was sitting in his house one day, counting his pots of honey, when there came a knock on the door.

“Fourteen,” said Pooh. “Come in. Fourteen. Or was it fifteen? Bother. That muddled me.”

“Hallo, Pooh,” said Rabbit.

“Hallo, Rabbit. Fourteen, wasn’t it?”

“What was?”

“My pots of honey what I was counting.”

“Fourteen, that’s right.”

“Are you sure?”

“No,” said Rabbit. “Does it matter?”

“I just like to know,” said Pooh humbly. “So as I can say to myself, ‘I’ve got fourteen pots of honey left.’ Or fifteen, as the case may be. It’s sort of comforting.”

“Well, let’s call it sixteen,” said Rabbit.

(A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner, illus. Ernest Shepard [1928; New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1988], pp. 38-39.)

You should never bother counting anything unless you know the answer to Rabbit’s excellent question: “Does it matter?” — and the answer is “yes.”

If it does matter — if finding out how many pots of honey you have might affect your behavior — then you’ve established your VOI (the Value Of the Information). But if you counting just because “it’s sort of comforting,” you’re wasting your time, not to mention the time of the people you’re passing that info along to.

And if the number doesn’t matter, then you’re also like Pooh and Rabbit: likely to inflate from fourteen to fifteen or even sixteen. If the information doesn’t matter, what’s a 14% error?