The Managers Who Stare at Graphs
Big Data got your goat? Maybe it’s time to act on your data…
By Christopher Surdak, JD
Big Data is taking over our world leaving business leaders awash in a sea of facts and figures. Facts generally speak of the world as it is, rather than how we might wish it were. And they do so with a great deal of authority. No matter how talented you may be as a politician, it’s hard to argue against a trillion rows of data that undermine your preferred position. This can be a challenge for those who have succeeded in business based upon beliefs, intuition, politics and faith. And as Big Data yields to Fast Data in our increasingly-predictive and persuasive world, those who chose to ignore facts in favor of their beliefs may find it increasingly difficult to justify their decisions, or lack thereof.
Oceans, Kaisers and “The Dude”
In the dark comedy film, “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” the characters played by George Clooney, Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges are soldiers who are recruited into a secretive special project in the post-Vietnam-War U.S. Army.
They were recruited because the army believed that these soldiers had some super-human telepathic powers, which could be harnessed to create uber soldiers. Throughout the movie these soldiers were indoctrinated into believing they had such powers and could use them to achieve invisibility, teleportation, telepathy and any number of Jedi mind tricks.
Indeed, they called themselves Jedi and believed that they could make events unfold to their liking simply by willing them to be so.
At a key point in the movie the character played by Clooney kills a goat by making its heart stop. He believes that he did this by using his mind, after staring at and concentrating his psychic powers on the goat for many hours.
The implication of this is simple: if you wish for something hard enough it’ll happen just because you thought of it.
As unrealistic as this scenario is the producers of the movie claim that much of their story is, “based upon actual events.” Whether or not this is true I suspect that many of us have direct experience with the power of belief and faith; for many of us this is a cornerstone of our lives.
When we believe something counter to an ocean of facts around us we call it faith. Most of us have some experience with the power of faith. Beliefs can be powerful things and having faith in something can, at times, lead to extremely beneficial outcomes. This is particularly true when our faith makes us take action in support of our beliefs.
When our beliefs drive us to act in new ways we get new results and new outcomes. These are typically going to be different from what we got before because different inputs generally lead to different outputs. The challenge many of us face is this: sometimes our beliefs lead us into inaction rather than action. When this occurs, expecting different outcomes from our inaction isn’t an act of faith, it’s an act of insanity.
The Homer Effect
In the famous Simpson’s episode “Homer Goes to College,” Homer, upon finding out he was unprepared to take a final exam, developed a plan for dealing with the situation. His plan was to, “…hide under some coats, and hope that somehow everything will work out.” This is a great example of the belief in the power of doing nothing. We may want different results, we just don’t want to change in order to get them.
This approach also manifests itself as the appearance of action, where we do the same old thing, just faster, harder or more emphatically, with the hope and belief that different outcomes will be the result. I hate to break it to you, but believing that you’ll get different results from doing the same old thing is what Einstein called crazy, and he was right.
Jedi Mind Tricks
Returning to our goat soldiers, Clooney and team were led to believe that they could change the world around them through mere willpower. Throughout the movie their beliefs did indeed change the world around them. BUT, this only occurred when they ACTED upon their beliefs, rather than simply thought about them. The killing of the goat was the one exception to this observation, since in a story there must always be an exception that proves the rule. Whenever these New Earth Army soldiers sat and willed things to happen, little did. However, when they acted upon their thoughts they achieved different, and usually desirable, outcomes.
May the Salesforce.com Be With You
How does this story translate into the business world? Most organizations have implemented hundreds, if not thousands of information systems that watch, collect, measure, report, predict, or forecast their business. Executives have enough graphs, charts, KPIs, reports, metrics and statistics to choke a horse, let alone a goat. Legions of clerks, analysts, consultants, scientists, DBAs, MBAs, PhDs and managers are extraordinarily busy generating all of these reports for their leadership. Indeed, many spend their entire careers creating such dashboards.
Today it is possible, even desirable, to be educated and certified in generating such reports, as if doing so was inherently valuable. Businesses act as if reports, metrics and dashboards are themselves an end-product or a useful quanta of economic value. And there are examples of multi-billion-dollar organizations out there who do little else but facilitate the generation of yet more reports, metrics and dashboards. Apparently, we have reached the point of faith and belief in business where mere observation is considered to be an extremely valuable business RESULT, rather than a just a potentially useful INPUT. It’s not the goat, but the dream of its cheese, that has value.
Do, or Do Not, There is No Try
Once generated, executives, directors, vice presidents, team leads, supervisors, committees and their kin spend countless hours staring at this data with palpable intensity. They hold offsites, weekly review meetings, round tables, webinars, and concalls. They assign subcommittees, tiger teams, subpanels, special forces, black belt ninja warriors and the like to the task of looking even harder at the data, in the hope that mere observation may lead to changes in what is observed. They hope to kill their goats by willpower alone rather than the far messier alternatives of taking some sort of physical action.
This irrational emphasis upon spectating rather than doing has its basis in one of our most basic human emotions: fear. Western economic thought has been so focused upon quarter-by-quarter, relentless growth and profitability without costs or risks that there is little room for ever being wrong. Executives are loath to be wrong and so they use data, metrics, KPIs, dashboards and reports to justify doing nothing rather than risking a bad decision.
This fear of making a bad decision, of being wrong, is so deeply rooted in Western economic thinking that it is difficult to imagine a world without it. Yet this is precisely what our leaders must embrace in order to prepare for the changes coming to our world. Beliefs are meant to be challenged and broken. Indeed for many of us success is dependent upon our doing so. As Yoda instructed Luke Skywalker during his Jedi training, “Do, or do not, there is no try.”
He would have been just as appropriate if he had said, “Act, or act not, there is no dashboarding or offsiting.”
Quantify, Then DO SOMETHING
In my book, “Data Crush,” I provide a number of imperatives that organizations must embrace to survive and thrive in a Big Data world. One of these principles is Quantification, where your organization collects, analyzes and then ACTS ON the data that defines your business. It is critical that you collect data and analyze it, but stopping there is crazy.
Insight without action isn’t worthless; it’s much, much worse than that. If you’ve gotten to the point of insights with your Big Data efforts you’ve managed to absorb all of the costs associated with:
- Selecting and deploying technologies
- Hiring your data scientists (whatever THAT means)
- Extracting-transforming-and-loading your data (the loathsome ETL process which is the bane of any meaningful data analytics)
- Creating gorgeous, eye-candy reports and dashboards
But, have you generated any meaningful outputs? Are your reports an end, or just a beginning? You’ve absorbed all of the costs, but where’s the benefit?
Merely analyzing data is worthless. No amount of staring at graphs, charts and dashboards will transform how your business operates. No matter how long or hard you stare at those graphs, until you do something they’re going to keep staring right back. If your dashboards are showing you disturbing trends no amount of staring at them is going to change those bad results. You can line up all of your Jedi-Ninja-Black-Belt-Data-Scientists and have all of them stare at that goat for days and days, but I can promise you that it will not fall over dead from wishing and staring alone.
At some point, unless you’re George Clooney, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and actually do something to get new results.
Mere belief or faith will not make those metrics improve; at least not in the long term. Faith and belief have their place in our world; we are human after all and we need these intangibles to feel whole. But, Big Data requires that you ACT upon your data not just look at it. For Big Data to have any impact you must turn insight into action. In this way your beliefs can manifest themselves in reality and generate the outcomes that you might otherwise wish for. Anything less is being a spectator in one of the biggest games of your life, and you might as well show up to work with a giant foam finger, rather than a host of spreadsheets and reports.
Without new actions and outcomes Big Data becomes an academic exercise, where you’re hoping that faith and belief, rather than action, will lead to new outcomes. If this is how you’re leveraging your investments in Big Data, you might as well be trying to play a Jedi mind trick on a goat. If you succeed at this please let me know. There are these three casinos in Vegas that we could take down together, using your telekinetic powers!
If you want different outcomes you need to act differently. Big Data can show you what actions to take, and what changes result. But until you do so, until you act, Big Data will be nothing more than a very expensive distraction.