What Is the Difference Between Accuracy and Precision?

Precision and accuracy may seem like the same thing, but understanding the distinction between them will let you level up your product management skills.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
June 8, 2021
Updated: June 9, 2021
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
June 8, 2021
Updated: June 9, 2021

Would you prefer your work to be accurate or precise? This sounds like a trick question, right? Aren't they the same thing? 

Well, not exactly. Both are important to your product management practice. As a product leader, youll need to understand and leverage both concepts to make your strategy a reality. 

Both accuracy and precision have dictionary definitions. If you look them up, you’ll see they’re quite similar. Lets use the concept of the bullseye to make the distinction clearer. 

Imagine that youre an archer taking some practice shots by shooting at a bullseye. I’m judging your shots over the span of time, and I tell you I’m looking at both precision and accuracy. I would judge your performance the following way:

Your accuracy: This measurement tracks how close you are to the center of the bullseye. If you’re hitting the innermost circle, then that shot is as accurate as possible. 

In product management terms, consider how right you are when solving a problem. Remember, you can't ever be completely accurate, but you can approach perfection.

Your precision: Here, I measure how close each of your arrows is to the others. If all your arrows are hitting the same place, then you’re as precise as possible, even if the shots arent accurate. 

In product management, consider how consistently you bring value to the market. Are your releases consistent? 

Accuracy Versus Precision

In product management terms, accuracy is a measurement of your ability to deliver products that the market wants. A good way to track this metric is by the number of big wins your team scores. Precision refers to your ability to consistently deliver useful results to the customers. To make your team thrive, you need to do both.

Both of these concepts are essential to executing your product strategy well. If you’re failing at both, you’ll find your team is powerless. When both are rolling, however, then you’ll find that your team is full of trust and positioned for success over the long term.

Let’s look at this in a matrix since visualizing things makes understanding this principle even simpler:

precision-accuracy
Image created by the author.

Let’s talk about each one of these quadrants. Each section of this article will define how they look in practice. If your team isn’t in the top-right quadrant, you’re going to want to fix that. We’ll talk about the consequences of each of the other quadrants and then, in the end, I’ll leave you with a workshop that will allow your team to move to the top-right. 

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Accuracy + Precision +

Let’s start with a look at the best-case scenario. What is the ideal state? 

When your strategy is both precise and accurate, you solve customer problems and leverage your resources well. 

This team can take many forms. Much like enlightenment, the path is different for everyone. But you’ll be able to tell you’re on the right track because things run smoothly.

A team that’s both precise and accurate has the right stuff. Your team is curious, thoughtful and action-oriented. They know how to look at the marketplace and create big wins to make a splash. The team also knows how to keep the marketplace happy with consistent results.

When you ship smaller releases, your customers are generally appreciative. Larger ones generate a buzz in the marketplace.  Product usage makes clear that the customer needs what you’re giving them. For most releases, you’ll see over 40 percent usage. Those that aren’t at that level are usually specific add-ons for a particular segment of customers whose numbers may be small, but who are willing to pay for the exclusivity. 

Product leaders: When a team is operating like this, your job is to get out of the way and let them cook.

Now that we have a good baseline, let’s take a look at what happens when teams are missing a part of the equation and it’s time for you to help. 

 

Accuracy + Precision -

Let’s go now to BobCo, whose product team has a precision problem. 

Over the last few quarters, they seem to have found some things that work and work well. The only problem is that, out of the 10 items they ship, only one or two of the products are helpful to customers.

Why is this a problem? Home runs are great and tend to bring better visibility to a company and a team. But delivering only big wins, punctuated by long stretches of not much at all, eventually leaves people wanting. After a while, teams expect to have some consistency in their work. 

The result? The product team never knows how to justify resource requests to the broader company. Your lack of consistency means you don’t know what will be a hit and what will fall flat. Outside the company, the marketplace thinks you are great entertainment but not a serious player. 

BobCo’s product team continues to work hard, but they can’t seem to make the case for growing the product function. The team starts to fade from importance in the organization, and as a result, loses influence. Product trades in influence, so this is a serious problem.  

As a product leader, your responsible for the fact that the whole organization is stuck in the mud as other teams catch on to the issues. 

How do you fix this problem?

The culprit is likely your lack of iterating on the process itself. My guess is that the most significant fixes will come when your teams have an opportunity to adjust processes. You probably aren’t reflecting on anything. Take a moment to slow down delivery and see how you can get alignment on how you ship. 

A useful tool to generate this alignment is a team retrospective workshop.

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Accuracy - Precision +

Let’s go now to HobCo, a team that has an accuracy problem. 

Unlike BobCo, they seem to be able to get the team to provide value regularly. The problem is that they aren’t shaking up the marketplace. 

Why is this a problem? Well, it’s basically the inverse of what we saw above. Being reliable is excellent, but over time, that consistency becomes less effective. It’s how you open room for new challengers to eat your lunch in the marketplace. You’ll run into issues with people feeling like the product is in the background. They aren’t making a splash, and people forget the team exists. 

The result of all this? The product team recedes into the back of people’s minds. Always being reliable makes your product always a bridesmaid, never a bride. When a new player hits a home run, you’ll have to explain why you missed it. 

Hobco’s product team continues to work hard but, just like we saw above, can’t manage to grow the team or its influence. 

As a product leader, you’ll watch your team fade in importance. You lose influence, and much like your compatriots at BobCo, your team will be stuck in the mud.

When you find this is your problem, it’s an excellent time to take a look at your discovery processes. How are you talking to customers? Are you identifying who they are and what gets them emotionally invested or divested? 

To do this, look at why customers are leaving your product, and find some big swings to take Switch interviews are a great tool for making this change.

 

Accuracy - Precision -

Let’s finally look at SobCo, a team that has a problem with both accuracy and precision.

Unlike either of the previous companies, this team is neither accurate nor precise. If you thought the rest of the company ignored the product teams before, well, you haven’t seen anything yet. 

Why is this a problem? No one takes product seriously as a team.

Because product is considered trivial, everyone bypasses the product team entirely. If you’re lucky, your company becomes a feature factory that can crank out some products. More often than not, though, everything related to your strategy becomes more scattered. People can’t track what you are building or why it’s important.

Product development still happens, but you just won’t be involved. For a product team, this situation is apocalyptic.

The team itself is now on the brink of extinction. As a product leader, you either have to start digging your way out or start looking for another job. 

To start fixing this situation, you need to recognize that the biggest problem now is trust. Other teams are more than likely ignoring you, and for a good reason: They don’t trust that you can get things done. If you want to dig out of this hole, your best shot is to look for something small to tackle immediately. Find some quick wins to get some momentum on your team’s side. You can use those wins to begin re-establishing your team’s confidence in itself as well as earning back respect from the company at large.

I’d recommend finding a coach if you are a product leader in this situation. Even if you’re a new hire, having a second brain here is helpful. 

To find tools to facilitate this process, go to Google and pick any framework related to process or discovery. Most will be helpful as a way to find a solid base to build on. 

Start small, and good luck. You’ve got work to do.

 

Track Both Accuracy and Precision

Precision and accuracy are both important to your product development. 

Missing one or the other can lead your team to fade into obscurity and lose influence across an organization. If you are missing both, well, things aren’t great, and you’ll need to work immediately to gain control of the situation. 

It isn’t enough to just build a strategy, you’ll need to execute that strategy in a way that sells product to an organization. So, when someone asks whether you would you like to be accurate or precise, the answer is both.

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