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Rational data analysts have to consider motive first

Winners by Ann Morgan via FlickrDo the leaders of the world consider hard cold data when they make decisions?

I was sitting on aeroplane, catching up with the executive of an houshold name mulitinational, when he said something that was either the befuddled product of a jet-lagged brain, or something quite profound.  I know he is capable of both, so see what you think.

He said that he had learned, that “at this level  [buying and selling business units across borders]” the final decision just depends on the person making the decision.

Is there a general truth in this observation?

It is true, that like the son of a rich man, a firm can seem to “do well” just because of inherited wealth.  If we compare like-with-like and mentally subract the advantage of licenses and capital, is it true that at some point, organizations stop making rational decisions, and revert to the prejudices, preferences and whims of decision-makers?

Is the world ultimately run on whim, concealed by the size of major organizations?

Does data and rational decision making really matter in this complex and fast moving world?

I doubt we would ever have the hard data to systemaically explore this speculation. Wee may as well put it aside.  But another question does suggest itself.

If the world is puttering along on the basis of whim and prejudice, maybe we should stop worrying about being rational?  Maybe we should just suck-our-thumbs and join in? Put two stones in our pocket and say yes or no depending on which one we pull out?  Should we worry about having data at all?

What is the purpose of data?

It seems to me that we data pundits may have created a “straw man”.

Skilled leaders know that every decision is, at the last, personal.  Their decisions are their choice and the choice of the people they represent.  For them, the important order of events is not data and then preference.  It is preference then data.

Data is not there to tell people what is rational.  Data is there to follow through personal choices rationally.

Do we always use data sensibly?

There are, of course, foolish leaders who discard data when it does not endorse their naïve preferences.  The are inept leaders who discard data when it is ‘politically impossible’ to convey bad news to the people they represent.

More enlightened leaders, and I’ve known a few, use data to learn more about the group’s preferred possibilities and more about ways of achieving their preferences.  The enlightened leader becomes more conscious about what they need to negotiate, with whom, to secure their preferences.  The enlightened leader becomes more aware of what to look out for as they enact their preferences.  The enlightened leader becomes aware of side-effects that might undermine their preferences once the achieve them.

Data is useful to them but not when we try to tell them what they and their followers want out of life.  Data is useful to them when we elaborate their values and help to understand more fully what they want to do.

What is the role of a data pundit?

In short, I suspect data is always welcomed by enlightened leaders when it helps their mental model become

  • fuller
  • more flexible
  • more oriented to the outside world
  • and more supportive of informed, sensitive engagement.

A concrete example

I think Iit’s pretty much like taking a long haul flight with several segments across the world.  If I need to be in a certain city by a certain time, a rational analysis of options is pretty useless.  I am only interested in my options for achieving that goal.  And if that goal becomes uncertain or impossible, then I want data that allows me to re-formulate my goal and communicate to all the people who will be affected.

Leaders are rational; they are motivated

This seems obvious but we expect leaders to be more rational.  They aren’t rational.  They are motivated.

Sometimes we think that is wrong.  But following that reasoning,  it would be equally wrong to want to be in a certain place by a certain time.

The questions facing data pundits are

  • which motives do we enjoy serving?
  • and which data puzzles  can help to solve?
  • Executives often seem satisfied to support massively important decisions with sub-standard data.
  • Our data often seems good.  Yet they throw it out.  We jump to the conclusion that they are too motivated to follow a course of action without a rational analysis.
  • The reality is that we may have done the wrong task.  We may have interrogated a question that interests us rather than people we serve.

So why did I bother to write this post?

We shouldn’t be dismissing leaders as being willing to proceed without data.  They’ve been forced to proceed without data because we didn’t make data available to address the problem facing them today.   We might think they could make better use  of their time and effort but it is likely they would use data that elaborates what they value should we make it easily available.

Motive first. Analysis second?  First, be clear about the motives of the leaders and people we serve?

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