The drive to gather more data isn't going to subside, but numbers shouldn't be a replacement for vision. Sudhir Venkatesh discusses how companies can use data to foster, rather than quash, creativity.
"Businesses are drowning in data, but starving for insights. Worse, they have no systematic way to consistently turn data into action."
The obsession with Big Data isn’t going anywhere. Numbers are the chief way that we produce order these days. And they can be the easiest way to depress creative thinking in an organization. While the 1% demonstrate their prowess with data-driven analytics, the remaining 99% feel out of the loop and unable to contribute. Unfortunately, the most creative people are in this bigger pool—the dreamers, storytellers, myth-makers and strategists who say the things that others cannot or will not say.
First Figure Out Your Purpose, Then Gather Your Data
I’ve lost count of the number of leaders who follow a straightforward, but dangerous formula: Gather data + Analyze data + Look for patterns = Identify our Mission.
These managers mistakenly think that insights will "reveal themselves" in the oodles of data that pours out of their computers. They believe that gathering more data will help create focus out of chaos, directed action in choppy seas.
They forget to ask a very simple question, "What problem do we solve for our client?"
I recently spent a day with ten senior managers of a global luxury apparel brand. One of them sighed despondently when I asked whether her supervisors took seriously her contribution. "I feel like they want me to put a number on every idea," she sighed. "That’s the only way I get attention." She lamented the data mining "quants" in the firm who were called on to validate her creative insights. "While I’m waiting for their report, the world has changed."
Statistics don’t lie, people do. And, people lie their best with numbers!
I encourage leaders to stop fetishizing data-driven approaches to decision-making. A very simple exercise to find creative inspiration in your organization is the following: In groups of ten, ask your teams to answer the following question, "How will we know if our organization is successful?" 7 out of 10 will say something like, "Our share price will rise," "Our sales volume will increase," etc. The rest will tell a story about the organization—what the product meant to a client, its special place in the world, a sense of the future, and so on.
Don’t let go of such assets. No number can take the place of their vision. You’ll be grateful for keeping them close, particularly when times are tough.
Data For Decisions ≈ Measurement Of The Action Taken
Many leaders misguidedly gather data to inform a decision and then justify their action with the same data. An example is Yahoo’s decision to rank every employee, on every team, from 1 to 5. They used the data to subsequently measure the effectiveness of their teams. Unfortunately, as the New York Times reported, "Because only so many 4s and 5s could be allotted, talented people no longer wanted to work together; strategic goals were sacrificed, as employees did not want to change projects and leave themselves open to a lower score."
A simple solution is to think backwards. Start with the desired outcome or action and then consider, "How will be know if our action is successful?" In Yahoo’s case, it would have been more useful to ask, "Once we redesign our teams, how will we create a metric to evaluate whether they are productive/efficient/creative?" The data they gather to measure this outcome may have nothing to do with the initial 1-5 ranking they developed.
To recap: we all use data to make decisions. But, let’s not think that more is better. For that matter, the solution is not to be a humanist. The key is to use information smartly.