Is it more important to be accurate or precise? We can debate the merits of accuracy vs. precision for ages – and we think it would make a great conversation starter at your next team meeting – but the short answer is that it depends on who’s asking.
In some industries, like medical research, it’s important to be both accurate and precise. But in other fields, you may be better off focusing on one or the other — you’ll need to interpret your company’s priorities and communicate them to your team.
So let’s take a look at the difference between accuracy vs. precision and how to apply them when scoping out a project or reporting on the results.
Defining accuracy and precision
Let’s start by defining the terms accuracy and precision, and then we’ll get into some examples of how they apply in the real world. Both accuracy and precision refer to how a measured value relates to the actual value of the object being measured, but they do so in very different ways.
Accuracy refers to how close that measurement is to the true value, also called the accepted value or the known value. For example, if you know that you weigh exactly 150 pounds, then an accurate scale will display the correct value when you use it.
If it doesn’t, then you’ll need to calibrate it. Calibration is the process of adjusting the measuring device so it aligns with the target value. In this case, you’ll need to use a higher-quality scale to double-check the accuracy of a measurement.
Precision refers to whether or not repeated measurements produce the same value – even if those results are different from the true value. In science experiments, this is known as repeatability or reproducibility.
Repeatability means that the same measuring device shows the same result each time, while reproducibility means that multiple devices display the same result.
Too much variability in a set of measurements can mean that there’s a systematic error that needs to be addressed before completing the experiment.
Accuracy vs. precision on the dartboard
Is all this talk of accuracy and precision making your head spin? Let’s put these terms into context with an easy-to-understand example: target practice. If you’ve ever played a game of darts, then you already know that it’s possible for someone to be both precise and accurate, just accurate or just precise, or neither.
A player can be both precise and accurate if they hit the bullseye on the dartboard with every single dart. They’re neither precise nor accurate if they miss every time.
But they can also be either precise or accurate: If all of the darts end up close to the bullseye, but in slightly different places, we can say that they have high accuracy because they’re near the target, but low precision because each throw is a little bit different compared to the last one.
On the other hand, if the darts end up away from the bullseye, but in the same part of the dartboard as each other, then we can say that the player has high precision and low accuracy. They can hit the same part of the dartboard over and over very effectively – it just happens to be the wrong place!
Precision vs. accuracy in the kitchen
For those of us who aren’t scientists (or darts players), how do we know if precise measurements or accurate measurements are right for a situation?
Sometimes, it’s important to be both precise and accurate, but other times it’s okay to be precise but not accurate, or vice-versa.
Let’s say a recipe calls for an equal amount of strawberries and bananas. You go to the grocery store and weigh the produce on a scale. It says the bananas weigh 100 pounds, and the strawberries weigh 90 pounds.
Clearly, the scale isn’t accurate: It doesn’t match the actual weight of the fruit.
But that doesn’t mean the scale isn’t precise! Even though it’s showing the wrong amount, it’s still making a consistent measurement, so it’s still useful. You just need to add more strawberries until you have equivalent amounts of each ingredient.
On the other hand, the temperature of your oven needs to be accurate, otherwise your cake won’t rise. Cooking is a good example of a situation in which both precision and accuracy are called for, but not always at the same time.
Accuracy vs. precision in the workplace
We’ve talked about accuracy vs. precision in the bar and in the kitchen, but which value is most important in the office? That depends on the project, but what matters most is that your team understands what definitions of accuracy and precision apply in each case.
After all, no matter what kind of data points or measurement system you use, you need to know how to interpret those results.
If you tell your team to “be precise”, they may deliver a set of close measurements that are consistent with each other, but they may not match the true value. Technically, they’ve followed your instructions, but they may not have provided you with useful data.
For example, maybe their reports all show similar numbers for daily active users of your product, but overstate the number of users by a wide margin. This data may be useful for tracking growth over time, but it isn’t accurate enough to show your investors. It may point to an issue with the information your team has been working with.
Accuracy and precision are especially important when it comes to areas of project management, like scoping, scheduling, and budgeting. If all of your projects are coming in at 10% over budget, then you have a certain degree of precision, but you may need to recalibrate your budget to accurately reflect your resources.
A few random errors are to be expected, but a combination of low accuracy and low precision may indicate more significant issues.
How to improve accuracy and precision at work
Since every workplace has different standards for exactness, you may need to address the topic at a higher-level meeting such as a board meeting or all-hands meeting.
Issues with accuracy and precision often come down to the tools and methods you use to track data. While most workplaces don’t rely on scales and measuring tape, the software tools you use to measure KPIs may need calibration too.
Make sure that your CRM software and project management tools are providing useful metrics by comparing them to manually calculated data points. If they aren’t, consider upgrading your software or changing the way you interpret the results.
Train your employees
Even minor differences in how your employees handle data can lead to major disparities and observational errors. Start by training your employees on how to use their tools and follow standard procedures, and compare their results to existing data sets.
Once they know how to get accurate results, they can shift to focus on reproducibility, or improving their precision. After all, there’s no point in teaching an employee how to get the same result over and over if they can’t confirm that it’s accurate.
By improving accuracy and precision in the workplace, you can catch mistakes earlier on and spend less time having to do quality control later.
Templates are key to improving precision in the workplace because they make it easier to compare apples to apples and get consistent results over time. For example, if you use a different set of employee evaluation forms for every project, it will be harder to accurately track an individual’s performance over time.
By using a consistent set of forms and templates, you’ll reduce the amount of variation in your meeting minutes, evaluations, and other reports.
Improve your performance by taking accurate notes
A successful workplace has teammates who value both accuracy and precision, but some teams may place more focus on one than the other. Accuracy is all about getting the right result, while precision is about getting the same result each time. It’s important to know which of these two concepts are lacking in order to improve your performance.
If accuracy and precision are an issue in your workplace, consider upgrading your tools and implementing strategies like AI note taking to improve the quality of your notes.
Anchor AI uses artificial intelligence to take meeting notes for you, so you can reduce observational errors and document action items more accurately. Simply invite Anchor AI to your virtual team meeting, or upload a Zoom recording to generate a time-stamped transcript complete with speaker tags and action items.