Signal & Noise

September 14, 2021
Article Series:

In my recent article about structures of self-growth, Growth & Feedback Loops, I argue that feedback loops are critical for the kind of ongoing growth and development that befits any kingdom leader. In this second article, I want to circle back to an important idea that we need to be tracking with in this process: understanding signal & noise.

Signal and noise may be an area that I am a little better equipped than some others in ministry to sort through, because we deal with this kind of thing in the sciences all the time. All laboratory science involves detangling these two and understanding what the input that comes in really means. Put simply, the idea is that whatever input we gather, that input consists of an overlap of signal: meaningful data that points to something real - along with noise: random fluctuations that for our purposes don't mean anything at all. Visually, we might represent the idea with a graphic like we have below. If we chart our input source, it will have aspects that are meaningful, and aspects that aren't:

What this means is that while your input data means something, you need to interpret it correctly to make sure that you're not making it mean too much. Any source of input has noise fluctuations on it. Here are a few examples:

  • Suppose you weigh yourself at the same time everyday. We probably all have 2-3 pounds of "noise" on our body weight due to digestive and circadian rhythms, recent liquid consumption, caffeine intake, salt intake, and more.
  • Suppose you work in sales and you track your weekly commissions. Depending on the field, some sales jobs may have multiple double-digit percentage noise on them (as in 20% or higher). If you sell cars, for example, consider the effect of a random day of good weather, the affects of quarterly bonuses (or stimulus checks), or the random car featured in a movie that happened to release that weekend.
  • Suppose you work in ministry and you track your weekly attendance. Random family events/emergencies, sicknesses, vacations, business travel, community events, the weather, and more can result in a noise that is likely at least 5-10%, and for a smaller church may be much higher than that.

In each of these areas, we make a mistake if we over-interpret our data because for our purposes, noise is not meaningful. What does it mean that I'm down half a pound this morning? It quite possibly means nothing with respect to my diet & exercise plan to lose weight. What does it mean that my sales or my attendance were a little bit higher this month? Quite possibly nothing with respect to our sales or outreach effectiveness. Said another way, what signal & noise tell us is that not every little bit of data means something. Some aspects of data basically don't mean anything.

Does this mean we shouldn't get input? Far from it! What it means is that we need to learn how to understand data if we want to use it well. I've seen so many people waste all kinds of thought, anxiety, and effort because they've interpreted noise as being meaningful and treated it accordingly. Before you start asking, "what does this data mean, and what should I do about it?" back up and ask this question first: "do I know what in this data is signal and what is noise?" If we don't know we're looking at signal, we are quite possibly wasting our time.

Deciphering Signal from Noise

How do we determine whether we're looking at signal or noise? Stated in scientific terms, noise is always high frequency, and signal is lower frequency. Translated out of technobabble, noise results in more rapid (frequent) changes, whereas signal is slower, more drawn out change. Look at the visual above: the noise is a more rapid jiggle than the signal. This is the way we can split apart signal from noise; we slow things down and measure over more time.

A number of years ago I had a ministry project I was starting up which I was discussing with a friend of mine. He was asking some questions and offering some input as to how it could be improved. While I valued his thoughts, I could see he was evaluating over too short a range to discern the difference between signal and noise: he was reflecting on data after the first (and only) iteration! I suggested to him, "Let's let this settle and see where it lands after six cycles. At that point, we can digest our input and determine what we can learn from it."

It's not a bad idea to measure something every time: I track many things on a daily basis (a daily weigh-in included) - but it is a bad idea to try and interpret data every time you measure something. How do we know if my weight is trending upwards or downwards? Not by looking at a daily glance - I know by looking month-over-month. How do I know if our outreach strategy is working? Not by measuring the next service: by looking at how attendance is tracking over the course of a six-month period and comparing to the numbers from the parallel six-month period last year.

It is tempting to try and construct an understanding faster - to try and "get to the root of things" and piece together a picture that looks more complete than it really is, but I'm convinced there isn't much point to that. If we are the ones who think we can outsmart the noise, the joke is always on us. We have created a story where there is none to tell. We become the data-analysis version of an emperor with no clothes.

Noise and Our Finite Limitations

At this point, I can't help but quote Ecclesiastes, as Solomon in his wisdom articulates this is just a fact about how this life works:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11

The winner of the race isn't always fastest one; the battle isn't always to the strongest, because the outcomes depend on both signal (swiftness, strength) and noise (time and chance). Solomon was indeed one of the first scientists (1 Kings 4:33) - no wonder I love that book.

This is a sentiment that can be frustrating: why is it that seeming randomness - 'time and chance' as Solomon calls them - are so central to the ways of things? What is the point of developing skills, wisdom, intelligence and strength if they are not guarantees of the outcome we would desire? This can feel like an exercise in futility (and indeed that is how many read Solomon in Ecclesiastes), but I think there is a lesson for us in this: noise consistently shatters the illusion that life could be under our control.

God has made this world work so that it is never possible to be on top of things enough that we can force the outcomes we would like to happen. There are always more variables we cannot account for and more factors we can't see coming than there are ones that we are able to keep our thumb on the pulse of.

And I think in this there is a peace and a rest that we can come to. Maybe we don't have to try and control our lives; maybe we can trust God where we cannot control instead. Maybe we don't need to drive outcomes, maybe we can do our part, but accept that at the end of the day we always leave more to God than we have ability to execute for ourselves.

And maybe that is meant to point us to the fact that life may not be about success so much as it is our faithfulness to the choose to be who God would have us be. Our part is to be the right person, and we let the outcomes be what they may.

Sometimes I think God prefers to hide the best possible outcome because that which is hidden from the world is treasured by the Lord. It is a high form of character indeed which can take joy in being righteous without the result drawing the world's attention to it. This is the kind of joy that demonstrates to us that our righteousness surpasses that which could be motivated by the opinions of others and reveals to us our heart has joy in righteousness itself. In the economy of God, our being is worth a lot, but our seeming is worthless. God has couched this world in a swirl of signal and noise so that we can regularly see whether we take joy in the right itself, or the right appearance. And that, I think, is a beautiful thing.

Putty Putman's Spirit-inspired innovative insights come from his wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication, and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and spent eleven years as a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He is now serving as a pastor at The Chapel and preparing to church pioneer in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Mundelein, IL.

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