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If The Shoe Fits: Quantitative Data and Self-Deception

Friday, June 16th, 2017

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here.

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mThe following post is reprinted in full with Wally’s blessings. I e-met Wally when we both blogged for b5 Media — I think. It’s so long ago I’m not sure, but over the years I’ve read and appreciated Wally for both his insights and independence from accepted leadership-speak. I highly recommend adding his blog to your reading list.

Quantitative Data and Self-Deception

If you need someone to blame this on, it might as well be Rene Descartes. The 23-year-old Descartes was serving in the army when was visited in a dream by the Spirit of Truth who told him that “Conquest of nature is to come through number and measure.”

Numbers were power. That effect was amplified during the Industrial Revolution. That’s when the engineers took charge, measuring and calculating. Soon, Frederick Taylor and the efficiency experts showed up with their stopwatches and clipboards. Now we’re in the Digital Age, where computers spit out numbers by the mountain load.

Today, companies trumpet the claim that they’re “data-driven.” The Economist proclaims that “data is the new oil.” If there is a golden calf to worship today, it’s probably digitized.

We love numbers so much that we don’t think about where they come from or how we’re using them. We can summon them from our vast databases, manipulate them, and turn them into equations that give us “answers. It makes us feel like we’re in control. We’re not, really. We’re only in control of the data.

The map is not the territory and data is not reality

Data is not reality. At best, data can only represent reality. Reality is complex and messy and we can use data to simplify parts of it so we can understand it better. To do that we must leave out part of reality, assign numbers to things that aren’t inherently quantifiable, and approximate relationships with equations.

If, after all that, we treat data like reality we commit what Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We get lost in the wonder of our calculations and think we’re describing the elephant, when we’ve only got hold of one leg.

It’s a good idea to apply George Box’s observation about models to our data. All are flawed, but some are useful.

Quantitative data is not objective

No matter what you or your boss thinks, quantitative data is no more objective than qualitative data. Someone, somewhere, sometime decided what would be counted and tracked and what would not. Someone, somewhere, sometime decided how and how often data would be gathered and how it would be presented.

That’s obvious when you talk about qualitative data. We usually get qualitative data in the form of a story. This happened when we observed it this way. With quantitative data, the questions, assumptions, and decisions that lie behind the data are usually behind the curtain and invisible to the people who receive and use the data.

Dig into the history of things to find out why you use certain measures and not others, how the raw data is gathered and manipulated, and why it is presented in the way that it is.

Quantitative data is not enough

Quantitative data is important, it’s just not enough for a successful business or a satisfying life. The most important things in life and business can’t be counted or calculated. Relationships drive much that happens in business. More than half a century ago, Mason Haire demonstrated that emotions influence buying decisions of all kinds. Knowledge workers trade in conversations and tacit knowledge.

There’s one more thing about quantitative data. It’s easy for us to manipulate and “understand” quickly, so we’re likely to pay attention to what we can count and ignore what we can’t. That’s part of the reason why the long term is often sacrificed to the short term and why numerical accounting data gets more attention than “soft” human stuff. As one friend of mine said years ago, “When the pressure’s on to make the numbers, people almost always take a hit.”

Bottom Line

Quantitative data is important. You can’t run a successful operation today without paying attention to it. Remember that quantitative data is always a flawed representation of reality. Look behind the curtain to discover the whys and hows behind the data. Remember that human choices drive quantitative data as much as qualitative data. And, please, remember that the most important things in life and business cannot be force-fit into a dataset.

Copyright © 2017 Wally Bock, All rights reserved.

Image credit: HikingArtist

Golden Oldies: The Abuse Of Authenticity

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

It’s amazing to me, but looking back over more than a decade of writing I find posts that still impress, with information that is as useful now as when it was written.

Golden Oldies is a collection of what I consider some of the best posts during that time.

“…that’s the way I am” How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it? Is it valid? How much damage does it do?

Read other Golden Oldies here.

no-excuseMAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™) is a wonderful thing, encompassing as it does everything that makes you you.

MAP is also the great excuse, the adult version of the “because I said so” people use on their kids.

How often, when asked why you do X, have you responded “because that’s the way I am.”

Organizations have two versions, “not-invented-here” and “we’ve always done it that way.”

Whether individual or company, both use them to avoid innovation, change and disturbing their comfort zone.

But at what cost?

Marshall Goldsmith calls it an excessive need to be me and tells the story of a CEO who was lauded in other areas, but refused to provide positive feedback because it wasn’t him and would, therefore, be phony.

The example isn’t as extreme as you might think. I’ve talked with many executives, managers and workers who use authenticity as their reason not to change their MAP.

And because authenticity is hot, it’s the perfect excuse for not tackling the root causes of whatever needs to change, although, as with most excuses, it doesn’t hold up well to the light of honest, intelligent analysis.

But what do you analyze; how do you know what to change?

Take feedback from your colleagues, team and customers; then take a hard look whenever the answer to “Why?” is some variation of the reasons mentioned earlier.

Then think it through; ask yourself if there is a real, rational reason to stay that way or if it’s something that would be better to change,

And remember, whether individual or company, the most powerful reason for changing MAP is that doing so pays off handsomely, as the CEO in Marshall’s story learned.

Image credit: pattista on flickr

Single Loop vs. Double Loop

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

http://www.flickr.com/photos/sirispjelkavik/2801926735/

I frequently write about the importance of self-awareness, knowing yourself, understanding your MAP  and looking in the mirror for solutions when problems arise, instead of assuming the cause and its fix are external.

In the 1970s, Chris Argyris, a business theorist at Harvard Business School started researching the effect of obstacles on organizations and people and found two distinct responses.

Professor Argyris called the most common response single loop learning — an insular mental process in which we consider possible external or technical reasons for obstacles.

LESS common but vastly more effective is the cognitive approach that Professor Argyris called double-loop learning. In this mode we question every aspect of our approach, including our methodology, biases and deeply held assumptions.

While finding the answers within, instead of without, is the subject of a new book, it will take more than a book about high achievers to induce people to look inside first instead of as a last resort.

Why is looking inside so difficult for most people?

Probably because it requires an objective, no-holds-barred, nothing-is-sacred look at every opinion, thought and assumption we have.

It is a concentrated effort that can’t be done while multitasking or in-between games of Angry Birds.

In many ways this kind of intense self-assessment plays against current social norms and, for many, even how they were raised.

So the question becomes, is the gain worth the pain?

It is if what you really want are solutions to problems and success in your endeavors.

Flickr image credit: Siri Spjelkavik

The Abuse Of Authenticity

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™) is a wonderful thing, encompassing as it does everything that makes you you.

MAP is also the great excuse, the adult version of the “because I said so” people use on their kids.

How often, when asked why you do X, have you responded “because that’s the way I am.”

Organizations have two versions, “not-invented-here” and “we’ve always done it that way.”

Whether individual or company, both use them to avoid innovation, change and disturbing their comfort zone.

But at what cost?

Marshall Goldsmith calls it an excessive need to be me and tells the story of a CEO who was lauded in other areas, but refused to provide positive feedback because it wasn’t him and would, therefore, be phony.

The example isn’t as extreme as you might think. I’ve talked with many executives, managers and workers who use authenticity as their reason not to change their MAP.

And because authenticity is hot, it’s the perfect excuse for not tackling the root causes of whatever needs to change, although, as with most excuses, it doesn’t hold up well to the light of honest, intelligent analysis.

But what do you analyze; how do you know what to change?

Take feedback from your colleagues, team and customers; then take a hard look whenever the answer to “Why?” is some variation of the reasons mentioned earlier.

Then think it through; ask yourself if there is a real, rational reason to stay that way or if it’s something that would be better to change,

And remember, whether individual or company, the most powerful reason for changing MAP is that doing so pays off handsomely, as the CEO in Marshall’s story learned.

Image credit: pattista on flickr

Wordless Wednesday: Analyzing The Wall Street Brain

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Or is this more accurate?

Image credit: flickr

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