Programming People with Big Data

By Mike Lehr
Danger in using big data too mechanically

Danger in using big data too mechanically

Big data allows us to overcome the human tendency to oversimplify. Whereas we focus on one or two big causes to our problems, big data allows us to see the integration of many smaller causes. As the article, “Be My Guest” (The Economist, December 21, 2013 edition), exemplifies, this allows further detailing of our standard operating procedures. It means further programming our employees’ comments and actions, especially in customer service.

Oversimplification means focusing on the big things at the expense of the small. Six Sigma and Lean have proven big payoffs can come from small improvements. Translating to customer service, customers’ impressions originate from the collective impact of many small incidents not just a couple big ones. Big data allows us to leverage small incidents, thus transforming customer service and its training.

If you don’t tell a joke right, it falls flat. Customer service is like that. Big data teaches us to say the right things at the right times, but if we don’t deliver right, as early findings are showing, we convey mechanicalness or worse, creepiness. Tone might not fit words. Response might have mirrored exactly a co-worker’s earlier one. Too many personal particulars of the customer might have been referenced.

Big data isn’t about showing customers how much we know them. It’s about delivering without leaving the impression we know anything at all about them. It’s the joke comedians tell a million times as though they’ve just thought of it even though everyone knows it’s well planned, rehearsed and delivered. It’s the dancers, musicians and athletes who deliver performances seducing us into believing they required no practice.

Just as better information helps them, big data can do the same for customer service . . . as long as training methods adapt to incorporate that information.

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Four Horsemen of Apocalyptic Decision Making

Four Horsemen of Apocalyptic Decision Making

Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine (“What VUCA Really Means for You” [Harvard Business Review, January 2014 edition]) superficially introduced the four horsemen of apocalyptic decision making (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity [VUCA]). This post dives deeper into volatility, and future ones will address the others. While two or more are often at play, for my analyses only the one under discussion will be. The objective is to increase our comfort level in dealing with these four.

Frequent and extreme changes characterize volatility. If the other three are not in the picture that means our event is not overly complex, ambiguous or uncertain. Using Bennett’s and Lemoine’s example of prices fluctuating after a natural disaster, that means prices might fluctuate wildly over the short run, but we reasonably should be able to predict their long term. That means ensuring we’re in position to “ride out the storm.” Once that’s assured, short-term opportunities might avail themselves.

Other examples include:

  • Suppliers dumping product onto the market, issuing recalls or severely reducing production
  • Employers laying off or massively hiring talent we typically need
  • New competitors making a splash without sustainability
  • Legislative changes drastically altering the “rules of play”

Again, assuming the other three are not present, the long term should be reasonably simple, clear and certain. Our allies will be history and experience in finding related patterns, and statistical and data analysis in determining long-term trends. Once done, we’ll need to re-verify that current policies, processes and procedures will get us there.

Managerially, we’ll need to avert the natural reaction of responding immediately to every change or new information. Once we’ve determined the best long-term destination for riding out the storm, and once we’ve assured ourselves our infrastructure can carry us there, it’s a matter of securing the resources to do that.


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Wasting Time Not Making Decisions

By Mike Lehr

OZA No 454 (Wasting Time Not Making Decisions)An executive expressed pride in his people’s efficient execution of an initiative, “Everyone came together as a team and got this done in under two months.” After prompting him to share more, he eventually included, “It took us a year and a half to make the decision to do this.”

Whether the decision was right and whether it required that much time are not the points. The point is that the executive did not consider decision-making time part of the total execution time even though his people were involved in researching, organizing and analyzing the decision. If so, the total implementation time was closer to twenty months.

Consider salespeople’s pipelines. Each opportunity requires resources to move forward. Some eventually languish. If the opportunities become too much, additional sales help might join or languishing opportunities removed.

Now, let’s visualize a pipeline containing all the decisions to make. Each requires resources, much of it time. If new decisions come in faster than ones come off, the decision pipeline expands, requiring more time and money as we update research and refamiliarize ourselves with the decision.

Meanwhile, just as languishing sales opportunities skew projections, languishing decisions skew what might happen. We inject more uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity and volatility than necessary. Employees waste time toggling between waiting for change and following the status quo. Even decisions removing items from consideration for defined periods give context avoiding these four self-inflictions.

Accelerating decision making obviously helps. Often though, thoughtful consideration and consensus building derail this. While important, it’s often excessive and wastes time. Over-thinking increases errors, collecting too much information promotes indecisiveness and pursuing “the right” decision is often illusive. Worse yet, languishing decisions undermine leadership and morale by through indecisiveness.

Problems don’t wait while we decide. We should include decision-making time in efficiency calculations.


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Leveraging group interactions to mold relationships and culture.

How we handle the first question will determine whether we get more.

Once we secure the first question in our group interactions (i.e. presentations, meetings, gatherings, events), we’re only halfway home. Our handling of that first question will largely determine whether we get more. It’s a test. These five techniques will help us pass:

  1. Demonstrate appreciation for the question.
  2. Be sincere with any remark about it.
  3. Associate questioner’s name to it.
  4. Explain how question helps you or the discussion.
  5. Keep answer short.

Appreciation can be as direct as saying, “Thank you for getting us started with your question. I appreciate it.” Indirectly, it can be a compliment about the question’s quality or about how it allows elaboration on a favorite topic. Avoid saying, “Good question,” as it’s trite and commonly known as a stall until we formulate our answer. Complimenting questions is very similar to complimenting people: we should tailor it.

Part of appreciating the question is realizing it belongs to the questioner. Therefore, we personify it with the questioner’s name. This also helps pragmatically by allowing us to reference the question easily without having to repeat (i.e. “As I was saying about Mike’s question . . .”).

We treat the first question as the gift it is. Whereas we demonstrate appreciation by complimenting its unique aspects, this treatment is more pragmatic, showing how it facilitates better understanding, exploring more detail or sharing additional points. While similar to a compliment, it’s more pragmatic by sharing how the question helps the discussion. People like to be helpful. It reinforces their sense of self-worth.

Finally, we keep our answer short. Extended answers kill future questions by exposing our anxiety that another might not be forthcoming.

These five techniques ensure more questions after the first and an interactive discussion. That interactivity give us and our points greater influence.


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Homogeneity & Diversity

Homogeneity vs. Diversity

Computer security is a top priority in our digital age. Repeated reports of viruses and hackings remind us of that priority. Much of the reason for our information technologies’ vulnerabilities is their homogeneity. We build and run them similarly. In humans and nature, diversity prevents the entire demise of species. Someone, even many, will be resistant. That is diversity’s power.

The article, “Divided We Stand” (The Economist, May 24, 2014 edition), reports some computer researchers trying to make our digital technology more secure by injecting diversity, by adding enough variable elements to make hacking and virus coding extremely difficult. I want to extend that analogy to our organizations.

If diversity can make our bodies and computers more resistant to harmful viruses, it can help our organizations. For some companies, change is a harmful virus causing their death. Markets, competitors, technologies plus many other factors change. Any one or combination could mean the end.

Homogeneity is like the Macedonian phalanx, one large mass of soldiers and weapons moving uniformly in a single direction. It crushes everything in its path. Diversity is like the Roman legion. Divided into cohorts, further divided into centuriae and even sub-divided beyond that, they allowed diverse, coordinated actions. Each unit had its own distinct colors and spirit. Still, if the cohort met the phalanx head on, the phalanx would decimate it. However, leveraging its flexibility adaptability allowed the Romans to defeat Macedonia in the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C. and claim supremacy of the Western world.

Diversity has its price though:

Nevertheless, diversity is well-entrenched in nature. Whether evolutionary or divine, its justification for the long-term viability of any enterprise is strong.


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Rise of Self-Censorship

By Mike Lehr

Self-CensorshipLife requires effort. Just as it’s easy to be inactive and not eat right, it’s easy to associate with people who are like us and who agree with us. Similarly, just as the absence of challenging, healthy practices has ramifications, so does the absence of challenging relationships.

Homophily describes the natural, human, social tendency to interact with “birds of the same feathers.” It’s powerful, underpinning the force in peer-to-peer marketing for example. When we couple this with our tendency to avoid conflict, we get self-imposed censorship. Just as tension makes stronger muscles, it makes stronger minds too, helping us through mental blocks and delivering better problem-solving capabilities.

Two articles, “How Social Media Silences Debate” (The New York Times, August 26, 2014) and “Social Media May Discourage Free Expression, Even Offline” (CBS News, August 27, 2014), discuss conflict avoidance. Social media, it seems, encourages most of us to suppress negative emotions and controversial views, creating a faux happy virtual world. For those of us who regularly participate in social media, this extends into our realities too, making us about 50% less likely to express our views than those who don’t regularly participate.

Moreover, just as the lack of physical challenges can fatten our waistlines, lack of mental challenges can fatten our worldviews, making them more dominant, seem more righteous. In both cases, this fat constrains flexibility and adaptability, increasing rigidity in movement and thinking. Such fat makes “thinking outside the box” very difficult, reducing creativity, innovation and basic problem-solving.

So, exercise your mind today, interact with someone different and disagreeable.

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Practicing Safe Science

By Mike Lehr
Irrationality of Science

The scientific method, as with any process, is not immune to adverse human influences.

Journalism has a persistent bias for the new and exciting. They sell in pop culture, and as it turns out, they sell in scientific culture too. This creates unintended consequences.

Unlike pop or mainstream journalism, objectivity and peer review form critical cornerstones of science’s scientific method. Summarizing “Journalistic Deficit Disorder” (The Economist, September 22, 2012 edition) and “The Truth Wears Off” by Jonah Lehrer (The New Yorker, December 13, 2010 edition), scientific journals tend to prefer studies that:

  • Will sell more publications
  • Explore popular fields
  • Produce exiting, outlying results
  • Prove their hypotheses
  • Are new, not reruns of previous studies
  • Produce supporting results for a new, fashionable paradigm
  • Have substantial corporate investment or interest

These tendencies pressure scientists and researchers whose careers, reputations, incomes and funding depend on publicity their works receive. Several consequences undermine the credibility of science and research as a result:

  • Emphasis on proving outlandish hypotheses
  • Diminished importance of peer review
  • Increased biases in interpreting data and statistics
  • More focus on confirming popular findings or those with substantial financial backing
  • Defunding contrarian work
  • Skewing results toward extremes

Exciting often means extreme. In science it’s outlying results such as found in the bell curve. As Lehrer writes, since outliers receive the press, duplicating results is often difficult. Therefore, while hypotheses might be true, they’re not as true. However, as is more often the case, results are wrong, caused by inadequate research methodology, poor statistical analysis or normal human biases.

In other words, we can’t practice safe science by simply relying upon the scientific method. Human nature is too strong, even in scientists and trained researchers. We need to provide our own protection. That means educating ourselves on the scientific method and on the questions to ask. It also means taking nothing on blind faith . . . even science.


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Ragged ClockThe big three time wasters in business are emails, meetings and white tape, companies’ internal bureaucracies. All three aren’t new to most; however, what might be new is their severity. The problem isn’t just pain and suffering – our complaining. It’s also hard attacks on productivity.

For instance, McKinsey found people spending 20% of their time reading and writing emails. Highly skilled office workers can spend over 25%. Since 1970, the number of external communications managers receive have increased from 1,000 a year to 30,000 a year today. Moreover, initial research shows senior managers’ emailing habits drive those of their firms.

Continuing, Bain & Company found managers spending 15% of their time in meetings, increasing every year since 2008. Senior executives spend 40%. Among meetings, videoconferences can be the most inefficient especially as the ratio of attendees to presenters increases. Excessive collaboration contributes too to a meeting-happy culture.

Finally, white tape refers to all the documentation and reporting necessary to accomplish things; keeping score is more important than scoring. Twenty percent of people’s time is spent delivering information that the requester already knows. Adding a front-line manager creates enough additional work for 1.3 people, adding a senior executive creates work for 4.2 people. Beyond their own work, they create work for others and for assistants that support their work. We more commonly experience this as “empire building.”

“Decluttering the Company” (The Economist, August 2, 2014 edition) excellently summarizes and elaborates on all three. Yet, the challenge is overcoming our emotional biases to curtail these. For example, our emails help us feel important. Commanding the time of others feeds emotional requirements. Extraversion encourages interactions.

Ironically, technology was to free us from these. In reality, it gave us more time to answer more emails, attend more meetings and to document more activities.


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The four horsemen of apocalyptic decision making are Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity or VUCA for short. Just as customers do when they don’t understand, we tend to procrastinate, postpone or avoid decisions on events we don’t understand. These horsemen thwart our decision making in this way causing lost opportunities and more problems.

Four Horsemen of Apocalyptic Decision Making

The Four Horsemen of Apocalyptic Decision Making

Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine in “What VUCA Really Means for You” (Harvard Business Review, January 2014 edition) provide basic definitions, examples and approaches for each in a brief table. Still, not understanding an event might diminish it in our minds but not in reality. Problems, like squirrels, don’t care about our mental boundaries.

Each horsemen strikes fear in our decision making. Since urgency and immediacy often drive us, we’ll waffle trying to keep up with volatility. Since we prefer certainty, we’ll discount or ignore uncertain factors. To simplify things, we’ll look for the silver-bullet rather than coordinate many solutions. To achieve understanding, we’ll create definition and quantification even if it means leaving out ambiguous intangibles. That is why these horsemen are also four of eight alerts that help us anticipate problems.

Rather than deal with the horsemen as Bennett’s and Lemoine’s table suggests, our fears will encourage us to see stability where volatility exists (prices won’t change anymore [see table’s examples]), to see certainty where uncertainty hides (competitor’s product launch won’t muddy the waters), to see simplicity in place of complexity (all customers basically need our product), and definition rather than ambiguity (we’ve done this before and succeeded so just follow the template).

Our emotional triggers for security (stability, certainty, simplicity and definition) are often so strong and the four horsemen so nebulous that rationalizing like this is easy. That is what makes them so apocalyptic and what we commonly call “being blindsided.”


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Placebo ManagementThree attorneys specializing in medical malpractice attested to me that better bedside manner lowers malpractice risk. One even claimed that he could predict doctors’ malpractice premiums based on how they entered his office and seated themselves. According to “Better Bedside Manners” (Time, September 5, 2007) by Laura Blue, “plenty of past studies have shown a link between lousy doctor communication and poor medical outcomes, such as inadequate care and malpractice suits.” For instance, one study claimed these results:

Positive physician communication behaviors increased patients’ perceptions of physician competence and decreased malpractice claim intentions toward both the physician and the hospital. A more severe outcome increased only patients’ intentions to sue the hospital.

Doctors’ people skills also improve medical outcomes. Thus, the effect minimizes negatives and maximizes positives. It has many business lessons extending beyond the medical field. These lessons have two overarching themes. People skills influence:

  1. Interpretations and assessments of objective skills and performances
  2. Outcomes dependent on those skills

In other words, we will perceive doctors’ with good people skills as having good technical skills too. Similarly, we will perceive such employees as possessing better technical skills. We will tend to see the friendly computer technician as being good technically, the friendly CFO as being so too and so on. This relates to phenomena where style trumps content and eloquence trumps honesty.

Reversing the effect though, people skills allow us to improve outcomes without tangibly improving others’ skills. By impacting beliefs and emotions, we can help people feel better about themselves just as patients can feel better about their medical treatment. Both yield better outcomes.

Collectively, these are placebo approaches and techniques. Placebos have an impact in medicine. No longer can we say they don’t. We can say the same in management and leadership.


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