Bad stories stop good data at the water cooler

We agree by now that data’s a good compass. One neglected question is tougher: Which map?

Everyone’s known the kind of “grouchy guy” TDWI instructor Kellee M. Franklin, Ph.D tells about. This guy knew better than most of his co-workers about how their Washington, D.C. defense agency worked. And he was frustrated.

Over the years, he had offered a series of genuinely beneficial ideas over years — and saw each one ignored. He had become known as a complainer. No matter what he said, no one listened to a single word anymore.

Ignoring relevant data

“We have blinders on,” she said. Franklin is a longtime innovation consultant, and she’s seen case after case like this. “We can only see what we’ve been educated on and exposed to.”

In fact, she found out when she talked to him, they should have listened. “He was way ahead of the curve in thinking about things within the agency,” she said. Over and over, he came up with options that were then rejected. He saw a way to streamline security clearances, for example. As it was, his agency insisted that even people with existing clearance at other agencies got full clearance over again. But he had seen how other agencies used automation to clear new staff more quickly. He also wanted to create a working group for security issues that would address time wasted.

Those ideas crashed into others, including common ones: “We don’t do things that way around here” and “This will never fly!” Why? No reason, it just won’t work.

Other stories or mental models might have included “We’re rigorous, they’re not.” Or, about Grouchy Guy’s idea to have a working group, “What, another committee?”

Quantitative data on Grouchy Guy from his several dozen years at the agency pegged him as a “low performer.” A loser. But Franklin found much more data to consider.

She ended up presenting some of his ideas — in the way the man’s coworkers finally heard. Several of those who had once dismissed his ideas once now felt remorse.

Better stories force new data into the frame

“Many good ideas are stopped at the water cooler,” she said, when a ruling clique cuts off ideas that don’t fit their model. Those models determine the stories we tell ourselves and each other and have a strong influence on who’s hired and how things get done.

“Stories are powerful in this regard,” she said. New, alternative stories force other data into the frame.

“I’m all for data,” she said. “It moves the needle. But we’ve got carpetbaggers who promote data without a clear understanding of human behavior and storytelling.”

Look past the tech. Look closer at stories behind the data.

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