Data is the new black. There is too much of it, and it is not reliable. Data cannot reflect a large spectrum of humanity (emotion, intuition, touch, etc.), and we are too reliant on data. That is why I am a fan of books such as “Small data” and “Sense-making“. Life is a journey through reality and time in search of meaning. Humans are messy. There is a difference between maths and meaning. Simplistically, math is all the data flowing through organisations, and meaning is all the intangible feelings and perceptions surrounding people, products, services, and the companies themselves.
Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data
“Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data” is about upgrading the operating systems of people and companies by remembering the thinking-and-feeling component of the operating system. We do not think enough about the soul of a company.
In Orwell’s 1984, he introduces the notion of Big Brother. If he were alive today, he might write about Big Employer. Companies used to talk about their people as family. Detached workers lack an emotional connection to the organisation, stemming from feelings that they do not work for a company with strong values, a clear vision, and a leadership team that considers employees’ interests and needs. There’s the physical landscape of offices, common areas, off-site meeting spaces, and so on. There’s also the emotional landscape of relationships with bosses and fellow employees. People feel spaces and connections both emotionally and physically, and therefore work environments are key for establishing meaning and purpose.
In these companies, stories are told: stories about values related to customers, employees, communities, and shareholders. Stories about the company’s founders, how it was founded, and why it exists beyond creating products and services. Stories that employees create as they find purpose and growth, and meaning. Without humanity and values, you end up with a company that makes money but doesn’t stand for anything and has nothing to be proud of. When workplaces become as bland and impersonal as a room at a discount hotel, organisations are in a lot of trouble.
When companies focus on financial as well as other numerical metrics and leadership creates a culture of short-term urgency and importance on making the numbers at all costs, the companies begin to rot; their leadership has stopped managing the firm and is being managed by numbers.
We are not spreadsheets
We are losing our humanity in a world where modern, data-driven economies and cutting-edge technologies are seeping into all of life. Increasingly there is a premium and a dominance on the quantitative, or what the author calls the spreadsheet, and a diminishment of the importance of the culture, humanity, emotion, and complexity of people, or what the author refers to as the story. Successful people and companies combine the story and the spreadsheet and, by doing so, restore the soul of business.
Let there be no misunderstanding. Data is important. Metrics are important. It helps with benchmarking, historical comparison, efficiency, predictions, etc.. None of those will make you improve your NPS. Read “Winning on purpose“.
Soft is the new hard
I have always believed in the importance of a soft balance sheet. Reflecting your company reputation, customer service, values, employee perception and engagement, culture, adaptability, empathy, creativity and health, to name but a few. All no-brainers for performance. For example, research shows that when employees feel psychologically safe and can act fearlessly at work, productivity increases by 50%, turnover drops 27%, workers are 40% less likely to experience burnout, and companies become 11 times more innovative compared to their peers.https://www.ronimmink.com/we-are-seamlessly-woven-into-the-universe-at-quantum-level/
And this is just scratching the surface of what’s meaningful in organisations. Go have a chat with John Ryan of Healthy Place to Work. People, unlike machines, are spontaneous, contradictory, and idiosyncratic. People don’t always do what data predicts they will do. Our brains are quantum machines. Imagine a portable computer built from a network of 86 billion switches, capable of general intelligence sophisticated enough to build a spacefaring civilisation, weighing just 1.2 to 1.3 kilograms, consuming just 20 watts of power, and jiggling like Jell-O as it moves. There’s one inside your skull right now.
The book to read is “Radically human“. It is all about interpretation, diversity, making the connections, setting the context, experience, flagging bad data and asking the right questions (ask questions data can answer, not data-driven questions).
There is no escaping AI
And when it comes to data, you have not seen anything yet. In the algorithmic age, no company can survive without a data strategy. The Chinese will encroach and expand into AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), and much more at scales that will bewilder. Read “The big nine“. The question is how can we leverage the magic of modern technologies while retaining the meaning and wisdom of old, but still effective, practices?
Machines know best
The attitude often is that “machines know best,” and so we allow data to connect to other data and come up with the answer. This is happening in every area of organisations. Plato said, “A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.” We are mistaking data for understanding, and you won’t get the whole story. Data is always massaged or flows from the questions being asked.
We need to obtain the story behind the spreadsheet. People possess a combination of deep knowledge and broad experience that helps them talk about the data in illuminating ways. They can relate stories about similar data-based trends in the past, about how a given leader failed or succeeded to address problems and opportunities. Great narrative artists—fiction writers, playwrights, songwriters—know that they need more than great characters and a scintillating style. They need a story. At his alma mater, Princeton, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos left graduates with five keywords: “Build yourself a great story.” He also said, “The thing I have noticed is when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There’s something wrong with the way you are measuring it.” Nobody remembers some formula, but they remember stories.
Robots do not dream
We are more than machine-stimulated people. We do not just compute using silicon chips or connect through Application Protocol Interfaces. We also feel, given our carbon realities. We feel and we dream, and we are moved, and we move others through storytelling. Within many organisations, highly innovative, potentially game-changing ideas are born regularly. Unfortunately, the left-brain environment of these organisations often starves these ideas of oxygen, and they don’t survive. A sure sign that a company is capable of right-brain, as well as left-brain thinking is the ability to tell a story.
Re-imagination is the main survival skill for business
Recognise that spreadsheets, for all the value they contribute from a left-brain perspective, don’t help you re-imagine things. Art can help leaven even the most diehard spreadsheet mentality. It’s not going to change an archconservative accountant or a data-centric techie into an innovative leader overnight. Listening to Beethoven, gazing at a Monet, reading Dickens, and watching an O’Neill play have many benefits, but one of the most surprising is helping organisations think and work in innovative ways.
What to do:
- Allow for passion projects. Google is a good model for allowing people to pursue passion projects. For many years, they’ve had a 70/20/10 guideline where top talent spends 70% of their time on their main job, 20% on some future corporate project, and 10% on their passions.
- Focus on meaning. Many companies are starting to recognise that satisfied, challenged, and evolving employees are better employees. Work-life balance, though, is the old frontier; the emerging one is development. In the coming years, we’re going to see people demanding work that is meaningful.
- Take a long term perspective. If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people, but if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people because very few companies are willing to do that. Bezos spends hours thinking about the future: trawling for ideas, exploring his own site, sometimes just surfing the Web, particularly on Mondays and Thursdays, which he tries to keep unscheduled.
- Prioritise customer communication and engagement. Prioritise customers over process.
- Introduce a rotation system. Move people physically and cognitively, and they do so regularly and with as many people as possible.
- Allow the opportunity to take sabbaticals—it provides time away from the routine to reflect, research, theorise, and see things in a new light.
- Ban people from using PowerPoint presentations and insist on written narratives
- Lead with your heart.
- Mandate fast decision-making. As the metabolic rate of business picks up, so does the need to make decisions quickly.
- Get rid of bad bosses.
- Give bosses room to empathise, customise, and personalise by recognising that each employee is unique.
Art is the future
Art can also be a great teaching tool, telling us stories that help us look at issues differently. Read “Robot-proof“. Art is the future. None of this will produce instant innovation, but it will help people start thinking in more creative directions. Art inspires, provokes, challenges, and moves (emotionally). It stretches minds, allowing people to broaden their perspectives. Set up art clubs. Within any sizeable organisation, you’ll find employees who are opera buffs, closet novelists, poetry aficionados, painters, and theatre lovers. Sponsor employee art outings.
Goethe described architecture as “frozen music,” and that term captures the solidity of a well-designed building as well as the art it represents. Is your company frozen music? Obsessed with productivity and measurement, some companies fail to give the freedom people need to develop their own ideas and innovations relative to work. People are also more likely to architect where they feel free to take risks and speak their minds instead of in a workplace filled with bully-bosses, where they are taught to do as they’re told or else.
Now go, and let’s play some music and create magic.