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Data blindness: Just ’cause it’s in a spreadsheet doesn’t mean it adds up

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Pop quiz: You are a CEO needing to decide between two projects.

The first is presented to you with an evocative and imaginative plan. Your ears prick up at what the proponent is saying. But, of course, it’s only an ‘unsupported’ affirmation of a colleague.

The second idea impresses you with detailed financial and market analyses. You can tell that many hours have gone into the mini-telephone book of data supporting the project. It has thud-factor!

Which do you go for?

Not-so-happy landing

Before we get to your decision, let’s take a quick trip to the cockpit.

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” meaning that no matter how good your processing system, if you key dud data, you’ll have dud data returned.

Annoying when you are managing the family budget – but life-threatening when you are a pilot.

Recently it was reported that “lives and aircraft have been imperiled due to incorrect, outdated, missing or wrongly entered flight data” (The Age, 25 January 2011). One example included a pilot mis-keying the weight of his load by 100,000 kilograms, leading to the plane’s tail hitting the tarmac at Melbourne Airport in 2009.

What this illustrates is that pilots, like all of us, are prone to simple keystroke error.

So, why are we so swayed by system-produced data even though there is a fair probability that it contains some degree of garbage? Why do we take off even though we actually need more speed? Why do we invest in projects even though the Excel data is never validated? And as a CEO, do you choose numbers over narrative?

Trusting the form, ignoring the substance

Data – and more particularly, spreadsheet data – gives an undeniable sense of authority. Take a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation, key it into Excel and suddenly there is an authority to the numbers that belies its origin.

Why? What is it in our nature that makes us defer to software packages rather than the ‘unsupported’ affirmations of a colleague? What makes us suffer from Data Blindness – being blinded by the form rather than the substance?

Perhaps it’s because it would be personally and professionally risky otherwise.

When relying on a data model we are relying on something other than ourselves. It’s the magic grassy knoll. The stooge. If it all goes wrong we can defer to the numbers, the assumptions, the calculations. And moreover, everyone you know relies on the same system – it is a business convention.

But what we don’t acknowledge is the human behind the data. The human that is making subjective determinations about what numbers go where, how they should be treated, what should be included.

We spend time in business forcing data-driven decisions so we can validate a view we have already formed.

It is a justification process: by the time we reach for the spreadsheet we know what we are looking for the answer to be. Confirmation bias is what’s at play here – the vulnerability to the corroboration error as discussed in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

So data gives the appearance of objectivity when it is, in fact, largely subjective. It gives the appearance of precision when it is subject to inaccuracy and misinterpretation.

And this is convention.

Thin slicing: there’s sense to it

Cut to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, a refreshing (and somewhat controversial) exploration of rapid cognition, those moments where your subconscious streaks ahead of your rational brain to make a decision.

The moments where experts can spot a fake sculpture despite the initial data analysis telling them differently.

Gladwell builds the case for the “thin slicing” – trusting your experience, your sense, your reaction to something as a valid form of decision making. In the case of the pilot, the sense that the plane didn’t feel right on takeoff.

So you are the CEO. Which project do you go for? Thin slice or data?

For me, over-reliance on error-prone and unquestioned data that we hide behind is a big concern. The pendulum needs to swing in favour of the ideas, the narrative and the thinking.

As business owners, that means spending our time on the two-second thin slice – making sure our product appeals in moments of rapid cognition. It also means questioning the data that comes your way for decision making, including who put it together and why.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences with data, and how you have influenced the stakeholders with both analysis and narrative.

Bri Williams is a product development and consumer analytics professional who uses her blog, People Patterns to explore behavioural insights and observations for marketers. Follow Bri at @peoplepatterns

Image by D. Sharon Pruitt

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