DATA without soul is harmful. Science, math, and data do not excuse us from thinking. Instead, they make it imperative that we learn to think more critically and combine it with our humanness to come to more measured conclusions. The story we create with the data makes all the difference.
Rishad Tobaccowala is the chief growth officer at Publicis Group, a global advertising and communications firm. Flush with data, we risk losing something more valuable: what’s human.
Rishad writes in Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data, that we can have too much math and too little meaning. “Successful individuals and firms can never forget the importance of people, their emotions, the culture of the organization, and what cannot be measured. Successful people and companies combine the story and the spreadsheet, and by doing so, restore the soul of business.” It’s a balance.
The 6-I Approach
Extracting meaning and accurate insights from data is made better by implementing what Rishad calls the 6-I Approach.
Interpret the Data
Not all data is alike. “Develop hypotheses, search for patterns, look for outliers, create alternative scenarios to explain the information you’re receiving. Through interpretation you can enrich the data with meaning; you can identify the story it’s telling.”
Involve Diverse People
“Expand the group that examines the data. When you involve people with various skills and perspectives, you’re likely to receive a richer interpretation.”
Interconnect to Larger Trends and Events
How does the data relate to what you’re doing or to an emerging trend or a competitor’s product launch? “Making these types of connections helps you take the data one step further, determining if it’s going to have a short-term or long-term impact, if it’s suggesting the end of a trend or the beginning of a new one.” Give it context.
Imagine and Inspire Solutions
What possibilities does the data ignite? “Rather than allowing the data to limit options and actions, explore the solutions it might inspire. If the numbers show that your product category isn’t doing as well as it once did in Market Z, is there an emerging opportunity because the market still has potential and competition will be reduced because of this data?”
“Data can spawn new and better data. Is there a test you might run based on the information you’ve gathered that can produce more insightful facts and figures?” Ask new questions of the data.
Investigate People’s Experiences
“In a given organization, you have hundreds or thousands of people with data-relevant insights because in the past—whether while part of your organization or with a previous employer—they experienced something applicable to the current information.” Sometimes new data is just an old story on a new context.
Seven Keys to Staying Human
Each of these sections is full of practices to help integrate them into our organizations—to make them more human.
Talk About the Inconvenient (Tough) Truths
Three of the most valuable assets in communicating are the following four-, five-, and six-letter words: data, trust, and intent. “Do you have good data that supports your point of view? Can you be or are you trusted? What is your intent? – i.e., why are you saying what you’re saying? Organizations must encourage trusted, well-intentioned, well-informed people to display this type of candor, no matter what their titles are?
Address the Reality That Change Sucks
People see change differently and are affected by change differently. “People won’t support and further change unless they perceive how they and their skills fit in. Employees need to see how the change strategy helps them grow, not just the organization.” When we are data-driven we see things in absolutes. Humans are more nuanced than that.
Unleash Creativity by Inserting Poetry into the PowerPoint
The spreadsheet “is not a clear window to view either the present or the future. Inherently, it’s backward-looking device that jails thinking within its cells. Within many organizations, highly innovative, potentially game-changing ideas are born regularly. Unfortunately, the left-brain environment of these organizations often starves these ideas of oxygen and they don’t survive.”
Introduce art into your organization. “Creativity is how we manage our own change.”
Recognize That Talent Does Not Work for Companies but Rather Companies Work for Talent
Data tends to favor the organization rather than the employee. “Working for talent translates into three developmental actions: helping people create their niche, voice, and story.”
Niche: In a connected world, a premium on expertise exists. Experts tend to be more productive, and hey tend to develop better solutions.
Voice: Niche focuses on the product while voice focuses on the process. If niche is a fact, voce is a feeling, and both are critical to building a personal brand.
Story: While niche is what someone is good at and voice is what makes someone special, story provides someone’s reason to behave.
Diversify and Deepen Time Usage
It is a mistake to allocate and measure time only in economic terms or numeric ways. The quality of how people spend their time is as important as the quantity of what they produce during that time. To get the most out of time, organizations need to sanction doing less and open spaces to do nothing.
Schedule More Meetings
Too often meetings are about the spreadsheet side of the business. “The received wisdom of minimizing meetings and only going to ones that create value for you is wrong. More meetings create more opportunities for productive relationships.” Rishad five types of meeting we should be having that are meaningful and relationship-focused.
Upgrade Your Mental Operating System
Organizations need to put a priority on mental self-improvement. “Provide them with the means and the encouragement to learn continuously—or rather, to learn and unlearn.”
Rishad make this important point about balance. When there is balance between the spreadsheet and the story, people are more likely to form their own opinions and be creative.
First, there is a need to balance ends and means. If the goal is to achieve a numerical goal at all costs, balance is missing; people will ignore rules and even laws to achieve goals. A second form of balance is recognizing that people have different skills and the company should not force consistency and conformity.
Restoring the Soul of Business is a much-needed book. In a world awash in readily available data, we must never forget the story. The story is what makes the data so valuable. That will be the challenge of the future. Data is the commodity. The story differentiates. Rishad writes:
My point isn’t to beat up on algorithms—they obviously are crucial in a digital age—but to suggest that if we leave organizational employees to their own devices (pun intended), they will be reactive and biased in their thinking. They won’t consider options beyond their own narrow beliefs; they will see the trends they’re exposed to rather than explore ones on the periphery; and they will fail to consider that their ideas might be wrong or outdated since their screens are confirming their biases.
If we put too much trust in algorithms, we are faced with three big risks: “The first is when you forget that a human programmed an algorithm and so it has a built-in bias. Leaving it to itself means you are giving up agency. Second, no algorithm, which is about zeros and ones, can truly capture humans who are variable. Third, if you can add no value to an algorithm, you have no job.”
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