your gut vs my numbers: what to believe?

Lies, damn lies, and statistics, right? Wrong.

Data doesn't lie. Data doesn't do anything, actually... it just sits there, waiting to be mined. (According to Martin Ford in Rise of the Robots, 99.5% of corporate data is still waiting.)

The lie comes from how people interpret the data.

The good news is, peoples' brains are predictable—there's a pattern to the lies we tell. Which means that you can correct for the lies. It's sort of like correcting for a clock that's always 5 minutes fast: it takes a little work, but it's manageable.

Except for that one glitch that prevents us from accepting that our brains are predictably glitchy. It's like that Dr Seuss story about the Sneetches. If you don't know the story, the gist is that we all think our side is right, yours is wrong, and if you show me how mine is wrong, I'll show you how you're an idiot... and by the way if my side ever changes its mind and adopts your argument, we only do it because we're right; you're still an idiot.

In business, this leads to lots of problems. There's one I want to hit on is the problem with numbers. I've been analyzing business data for 20+ years. Website visits. Downloads. Call center trends. Sales numbers. User adoption. At some point, whatever the data, there's a moment in which a question arises. And often, the question is, "How can that data be true, it conflicts with a belief I already have?"

The problem is easy to see when it’s your numbers vs. someone els'e’s gut, but less obvious when it’s their numbers vs. your gut. There are a myriad number of heuristics as to why that’s the case. What I want to focus on is a solution—a way to get the truth from numbers even when our glitchy brains make it difficult—no matter which side of the equation you’re on.

If you're the one receiving numbers, ask yourself:

How would I react if someone different shared this data with me?

Maybe have a short list of 5-6 people in your mind, including a mix of men & women, executives & front line employees, vendors & customers, maybe even a Republican & Democrat (don't kid yourself: our tribal political leanings follow us everywhere, even into business). You should be able to cover all categories with just a few people, as most of us do fall into multiple of those buckets.

Imagine each one of those people, in their various roles, sharing that data with you. If you're anything like me, you'll find yourself having different emotional reactions to the same data based on who's presenting it, ranging from resistance to acceptance to possibly even excitement. It takes some concentrating, but after a few minutes, you can get yourself to start disassociating the numbers from the people sharing it, which makes it easier to see them for what they are, and to integrate the data into your worldview in a dispassionate, reasonable way.

And what do you do when you have to get information into someone else's head?

Maybe ask them to do this exercise, too. If they won’t, or if you can’t, see if you can get your information into the hands of someone they'll trust, and get that that person to do the sharing. There’s always a way through the filter. You’ve just got to find it.