• Brian Heath

The Cost of Getting Better at Analytics

If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. -Epictetus

The stoic philosopher Epictetus famously said that improvement requires being content in being thought of as foolish and stupid. This is not to say that you are foolish and stupid, but others will certainly view you this way. Improving requires that you extend beyond your comfort zone and into the unknown. The unknown is risky. And yet all human achievements come from those who were at one point considered foolish and stupid for leaping. Humanity has endless stories and metaphors on this topic. Those looking to improve in analytics, either as an analytics professional or a leader of an organization, should prepare to pay the same price of being thought of as foolish and stupid. However, there are at least two levels of foolishness and stupidity to prepare for. One can be mitigated by instruction, but the other one will probably challenge the very essence of your organization’s truth.

The first level of foolishness and stupidity that you will likely encounter is technical. Simply put, you do not know about some analytics techniques or approaches. This may be statistical analysis, querying a database, interpreting a graph, or understanding some bit of code. As an analytics professional or leader of an organization, it is likely that you will eventually encounter some technique that you have never seen before. When you encounter such a scenario, you have two choices. You could pretend to understand it and not improve or courageously admit that you do not know, seek help, and improve. The former can likely save you from being seen as foolish and stupid at that moment, but the latter has a much higher risk of you being thought of as foolish and stupid immediately. To improve, you must be comfortable with this risk and admit that you do not know. Most people are forgiving at this level, however, there are some circles where expert power reigns supreme, and admitting technical incompetence in one area is a death sentence. Regardless of your choice, you can often remedy the situation through learning. This is cheap in today’s information-rich world.

The second level is when the higher costs and the greatest potential for improvements occur. This second level is about pushing analytics beyond superficial data exploration and analysis and into true decision-making support. It’s about questioning the assumptions of the data, the problem, and the organization. Are you measuring the right things? Is it even possible to measure and analyze the organization’s aim? Is the stated direction of the organization counter to its operations? What biases are embedded into daily decisions? These are dangerous questions to ask but are essential to how analytics can support an organization to significantly improve. These questions are highly likely to challenge the status quo and that is precisely when others will view you as foolish and stupid. Change is hard and changing how we make decisions may be even harder as our brains are programmed to not spend effort on problems that we think are already solved. Yet those organizations that can put up with the fools, listen and make some changes are likely to benefit greatly. The challenge is whether you, the analytics professional or organizational leader, are willing to be thought of as foolish and stupid to help make the change possible.

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