You’ve probably heard some version of the 18th century joke about a wife who, caught by her husband in bed with a lover, denies the obvious and adds: ‘Whom do you believe, your eyes or my words?’ The Marx Brothers used a variant of it in Duck Soup when Chico, dressed up as Groucho, asks “who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Obviously people believed their own eyes since the quote is usually attributed to Groucho.
I thought of that quote as I was trying to explain a report to someone. They kept telling me the same story about what was going on in their business even though the data was saying something quite different. Who was I going to believe: them or my own eyes? Or my own data?
One of the big trends these days is a discussion of “big data.” In a nutshell, almost everything we do these days in business generates data, and most of the managers I know are drowning in the stuff. Despite that, most of the companies in which these managers work are not what I’d call a data-driven culture. In fact, they suffer from the same issue mentioned above. The will often fit the data to the story instead of letting the data help them solve the questions raided in the telling. McKinsey stated in one of their reports that:
By 2018, the United States alone could face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.
What’s needed is change management with a goal of developing a data-driven culture. Maybe that’s too strong – how about a culture in which data isn’t subordinated to the role of being used selectively to reinforce or justify bad decision-making? At some point, people have to learn to trust their own eyes – the data they see – and not the stories they hear. That’s what I think – you?