The "Holy S***!" Number

Last Updated May 24, 2010 1:56 PM EDT

Sometimes a number or stat is so shocking, so profound, that it causes your jaw to drop and exclaim the words above, minus the asterisks.
  • We're in front of whiteboards 4 hours a day, but only use them for 4 minutes.
  • 87 percent of the poverty stricken are elderly women.
  • The average coffee drinker spends the equivalent of 11 days a year on coffee breaks.
Most numbers used in business are mind-numbers. But if we can capture one of these HS! numbers in our work, they can be used to inspire creativity and purpose, says William Taylor in his fine HBR.org post, What Surprising Number Will Change Your Business.

In doing marketing work for Sharpie, the maker of colorful marking pens, DraftFCB discovered that only 13% of communication is handwritten, so a theme developed around the importance of giving users a tool that breaks through the clutter.

"Business isn't just a battle of products and services," Taylor writes. "It's a battle of ideas about priorities, opportunities, values, and value. Ultimately, those competing ideas get reduced to competing numbers. So, if you can arrive at numbers that matter, you've got a better chance at winning the battle of ideas."
DraftFCB's idea, relayed through Taylor, is a terrific way for you and your group to toss off the blinders and take a fresh look at opportunities. Look at his post for more specifics on surprising numbers and how to find them.

Have you used an HS! number in your work?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.