Wake-up Call: Feel the fear and crunch data anyway

Wake-up Call: Feel the fear and crunch data anyway

Data is set to transform work, relationships and company power structures

 

Thomas Redman

Data will infiltrate every nook and cranny of every industry, company and department, transforming work, relationships and power structures

Data will infiltrate every nook and cranny of every industry, company and department, transforming work, relationships and power structures

 

Most people are uncomfortable with data. Estimates, analytics and data-driven predictions – they can all be confusing and overwhelming.

And, until recently, people could easily ignore data in their daily work. The company’s “gearheads” and “quants” were isolated in specialist departments, tech handled the mundane stuff and managers could brush off the benefits of improved data quality with the attitude: “We’re doing just fine. Why bother?”

But now that’s changing. More and more managers and their direct reports sense that, sooner or later, data will infiltrate every nook and cranny of every industry, company and department, transforming work, relationships and power structures.

Uncertainty around “what will happen to me, my work, my department and my company?” is seeping into hearts and minds of individuals at all levels.

You can spot the fear in a number of ways: some don’t make the effort to share potentially useful data, and others (increasingly) complain that the data is too difficult to access, understand or use, so they ignore opportunities to include it when making an important decision.

This atmosphere of fear has profound significance for managers. Fear can paralyse both individuals and teams. Fear prevents people from trying out new ideas, lest they suffer the costs of failure (or look stupid for trying). It hampers productivity as people waste time dissecting rumours, envisaging budget cuts and fearing layoffs, instead of focusing on work.

Good managers don’t allow fear to fester in their teams. And the best way for managers to help their direct reports grow more at ease with data is to lead by example.

Here are a few steps you can take to learn to use data more effectively and pass those skills on to your team.

To get started, take a hard look in the mirror. It’s okay if you’re nervous. Just don’t let this fear stop you. Instead use it to drive a sense of urgency in gaining the knowledge and experience you need.

Next, read and study. Find stories in the news and articles on the web about data to learn more about it. Pick books on the topic and ask yourself: “What does this mean for me and my department?”

Then find ways to practice using data. Pick something that interests you, such as whether meetings start on time, your commute time or your fitness regimen, and gather some data, recording it on paper or electronically. Create some simple plots (such as a time-series plot) and compute statistics (such as the average and the range). Ask yourself what the data means and explore its implications.

As your knowledge grows, push forward. Dig into other data sets to uncover the stories behind the data. Learn the distinction between causation and correlation. Construct graphics to help visualise what you’ve found. Share these visuals with your team so they can see what you’ve discovered and how it improves your work.

Bring your new experience with data into your daily work. Push back when a subordinate asks you to make a mundane decision. Challenge him or her to gather all the relevant facts themselves, sort through the options and make a firm recommendation. Chances are high that your subordinate will allot more time, gather more diverse data and thus think more carefully about the decision. Routinely following this habit has the salutary effect of facilitating comfort with data and making the entire department stronger. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015

Thomas Redman advises organisations on their data and data quality programmes. He is the author of Data Driven: Profiting from Your Most Important Business Asset.

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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