Why Data Doesn’t Always Win & How You Can Fix It
A data-driven friend of mine came to me recently and asked me for help. They were trying to communicate their insights, but having a hard time getting their point across to the powers that be. As we went through the details of his particular situation, it ended up being a lengthy conversation. Over the years, I myself have encountered several challenges following the path of data analysis, and I wanted to share the lessons I have learned along the way.
Unfortunately, being clever and understanding data doesn’t always mean that people will listen. Otherwise, the world would be run by geek geniuses by now, things would be far more efficient, and as a society, we’d all be a lot better off. But I digress.
There are several factors that can influence why your voice isn’t heard, even when the numbers are there to back it up. Once you identify the problem, you can work to make it right.
As a lover of data, sometimes it is difficult to understand why others would not share in this passion. Yet over the years, whether it’s family, friends, or colleagues, I have encountered what I call Excelandataphobia. It’s much easier to remember than Triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13), and victims can be identified by the following common traits during exposure to Excel, data, or tech-driven conversations:
- They first appear wide-eyed, followed by squinting.
- Their eyes take on a glassy sheen.
- Their brows furrow.
- Their facial expression goes blank.
- They often go silent, or change the subject.
For data-minds, encountering this phenomenon can be extremely frustrating.
Typically, people that would fall under the classification of Exelandataphobists are visual or design oriented people. They have different gifts that often elude data-minds, and they should never be taken for granted.
What’s really happening when they look at an Excel sheet filled with data? They look at it in a graphical way, like a poster, trying to take in the line of every cell, and all of the numbers, all at one time. They get overwhelmed with too much information, and ultimately give up. They may even say their head hurts because their dendrites are going crazy trying to connect the dots. You’ve lost them already, and all you did was share the file. You haven’t even opened your mouth yet.
If your friends, colleagues, or even your leadership suffers from Excelandataphobia, there’s still a way to get through, in most cases. The important thing to understand is, they fundamentally think differently than you. What seems logical and makes perfect sense to you may not even be in their field of possibility.
Once you understand and embrace the fact that each one of us has our own strengths, and receive and perceive information in different ways, we can start to explore a harmonious way of sharing your data in a way that makes sense for everyone.
People Don’t Like Know-it-Alls
Data-minds can also encounter other challenges along the way. I had an interesting experience several years ago. One of my colleagues pointed out that I had made an error, and they corrected me. I thanked them – it was a silly mistake, but I was relieved the issue was found and resolved without me having to track it down a few days later. Then, out of the blue, they got extremely animated and said “I have been waiting for over a year for you to be wrong, and for me to be right, and I’ve finally done it! I’m so excited!”
I was stunned. Excluding my ex, I had no idea that someone in this world could actually be consciously focused on wanting me to make a mistake, be wrong, or fail – keeping tallies on my success rate – and for such a long period of time! They gloated for over an hour at their moment of triumph. I, on the other hand, felt disturbed for the rest of the day. But it opened my eyes. The mistake isn’t what shook me, but the fact that people don’t like other people being right all the time.
For the data-mind, data is a non-emotional thing, unless of course we are excited because we’ve just discovered that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42, or some other incredibly meaningful insight. It’s easy to miss that when we share data and information, some individuals take that insight as annoying. Especially if it keeps happening over a long period of time. Most people will tune you out after a while. To them, you’re like that annoying kid in the front of the class that keeps raising your hand to answer every question.
Knowledge is Power, and Knowledge Can Threaten Power
I once had an old boss that took me to lunch one day. I knew there was a problem, but I couldn’t think of what it could be. After a long silence, she said, “You’re dangerous.” I said “How am I dangerous?” Her response was, “Because people listen to you.”
I was shocked. I never thought of myself as dangerous. So, what really happened?
We used to have open forum meetings where we would discuss our current projects, and the various outcomes. On several occasions, my data analysis would indicate the strategy should shift right, and my boss wanted to turn left, before hearing what the data had to say. Even though my assessments were correct, it became a real problem for me.
Data is knowledge, and knowledge is power. And for those who seek or have power without the knowledge you are trying to share, data can make them defensive. There are many variables as to why someone may have an issue. It could be a colleague seeking better positioning, or even a boss. The key is to know it is possible for your knowledge to be a problem, and you may be seen as a threat without you even realizing it. This is especially true if your data and insights tell a story that is in direct conflict with their goals, or they feel it makes them look bad.
There are many great leaders in this world who aren’t data-driven, but they are willing to listen what is being shared. Effective leaders use that information to make intelligent decisions. Talented colleagues who specialize in a different field of expertise can love learning more about what you do. In both cases, instead of viewing your knowledge as a threat, they realize it is empowering. They aren’t afraid to ask questions, get answers, dive deeper, and trust your guidance.
Be mindful of how your data analysis can impact those around you, especially if it paints a different picture than what’s expected. I think it’s still incredibly important to be true to yourself and your beliefs. You will not provide value to anyone by obfuscating or devaluing your results.
If you try to share your insights multiple ways with the right people, and you still can’t earn their trust, you need to ask yourself “Why?” and make sure you’ve covered all your bases. If they are still unable to understand that what you are trying to share with them will ultimately benefit them, you should probably move on.
Make Sure the Right People are Listening
Trying to share data with your boss when they are busy, or distracted means your message won’t get through. Be sure to dedicate uninterrupted time to go through your results. The more you can encourage them to ask questions to gain a greater understanding of your work, the better your life will be.
Sharing insights that are not necessarily confidential with a colleague though, prior to your boss having the opportunity to see it, can leave your boss caught off guard when it’s brought up before you have a chance to share it.
Finally, sharing your data in a format that is not easily digestible also means your audience isn’t listening.
Make sure you’re sharing your data with the right people, at the right time, in the right way.
Know Your Audience
If you don’t understand your audience on an individual level, you will hit a brick wall – immediately. The more you understand what motivates who you are trying to share your meaningful insights with, the greater the chances you will be successful. Tie your results back to how this knowledge will benefit them, and the things they care about. If you are presenting your data to multiple people, then it is best to share your data in multiple ways.
There are several theories and breakdowns on learning styles, but for the sake of keeping it simple – people typically learn best in one of three ways: visual (seeing), aural (hearing), and kinesthetic (doing). If you engage all three learning styles, they are more likely to remember what you’ve told them. Obviously, it’s not always practical to have people “do” something, especially if they are not taking notes. You can deliver verbal and visual cues simultaneously to help get your point across to the masses, and if you can actively engage them (maybe with a clever prop), better yet.
Of course, following these tips won’t guarantee that your voice will be heard, but hopefully it will help bring a greater understanding as to what could be happening behind the scenes, and provide you with ways you can make it better if you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall.
Being clever and knowing all the “right” answers means nothing if you’re operating in a vacuum, and you are the only one who gets it.
- Published in Data Analysis