If the goal is more informed decisions, better tools to analyze and present data just scratch the surface of the solution. There are many cultural and personal reasons why people struggle to rely on data to improve their work. Here are nine common barriers to data-driven decisions -- as illustrated by my 6 year-old daughter:
1. Head in the Sand
The truth can be painful, especially if knowing that truth means letting go of long-held assumptions. Analyzing data holds the risk of revealing new insights that are contrary to someone’s experience about how the world works. One symptom of this type of data resistance is described in a Harvard Business Review article about big data and management:
"Too often, we saw executives who spiced up their reports with lots of data that supported decisions they had already made using the traditional HiPPO approach. Only afterward were underlings dispatched to find the numbers that would justify the decision."
2. Aversion to Math
"Twelve years of compulsory education in mathematics leaves us with a populace that is proud to announce they cannot balance their checkbook, when they would never share that they were illiterate. What we are doing—and the way we are doing it—results in an enormous sector of the population that hates mathematics. The current system disenfranchises so many students." -- Teaching Math to People Who Think They Hate It (The Atlantic)
This subsegment of our society is immediately resistant when presented with numbers. Their reaction may have very little to do with the message and everything to do with the medium.
3. Analysis Paralysis
Some people may embrace data-based decisions…a little too much. Because data is often incomplete or insufficient to draw firm conclusions, it can be easy to keep searching and analyzing in hopes of more clarity.
When is good enough good enough? RJMetrics suggests that “data driven thinkers avoid analysis paralysis by sorting out when it’s worth taking action now, and when it’s better to pause and collect more data.”
If the decisions are based on data, why am I necessary?
The fear of displacement can animate some people who resist using data. In their mind, they were hired for their experience, expertise, and gut instinct. These people may not appreciate the important synthesis of data and business understanding that is required to make analytics useful.
In an American Banker entitled Bank CEOs Fear the Data-Driven Decision, an experienced banker explains: “…most bankers got where they were using their ability to 'read' the situation, a relationship, a deal or a market opportunity based on their gut and their personal skills and experience."
5. Uncertainty and Doubt
Inexperienced users of data will often question their own ability to understand what the data means. They wonder if their interpretation is right and how exactly to read data visualizations.
Sometimes these questions are turned outwards. Can I trust what this data is telling me? Do I feel comfortable with the sources of the data? Or most cynically, do I trust the motivations of the person who provided the data?
6. Preference for Stories
Narratives are easily digestible. The lessons are often clear, as are the heros and villians. Audiences love them. In an effort to commandeer a bit of stories’ attraction, the data analytics industry has focused on the concept of data storytelling. Even so, for many executives, telling a story unencumbered by the facts is a more compelling approach than being tied to the data.
7. Unable to Connect the Dots
Data decision-makers need to make the link between the data they see and the actions they can take. Sometimes this is an organizational problem: the data insights are being generated in a data science team while the people at the front-lines are some distance away. Another disconnect may be between the presention of data and the audience’s ability to absorb the message.
Relying on data can mean taking the time to find the right data, test hypotheses, and evaluate results. In our fast-moving world, who’s got the time to do the analysis before making every decision?
In response to a Quora question 'What are executives' biggest unanswered questions about data in decision making?’, one respondent noted: "Someone once told me they'd rather rely on heuristics because data analysis is laborious, time consuming, expensive, noisy."
Clearly, data doesn’t need to drive every decision, and making smarter decisions will always save time and resources in the long run.
9. Lost in the Weeds
Pablo Picasso said “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”
It isn’t hard to find yourself surrounded by numbers from reports and dashboards, and in the process lose a sense of what it all means. The numbers often don’t help you understand what are the right questions, and what you should do with the answers. People can become fixated on the details and lose the ability pull themselves up to a level to appreciate the implications of those details.
These nine problems -- and many more that you may have seen -- are more emotion than technical and depend more on mind-set than skill-set. Overcoming them requires executive leadership, clarity of message in data communications, explicitly linking data to actions, and a collaborative, pro-data environment. These are a few of the topics we explore in our book Data Fluency.