Intuitive Reasoning, Effective Analytics, Success: Lessons from Dr. Jonas Salk

Jonas-Salk-MemeApril 14, 2015 marked the 60th anniversary of the Salk Polio Vaccine. On that day in 1955, it was publicly announced that human trials confirmed Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine provided effective protection from the polio virus. By 1957, new polio cases fell by 90% from epidemic levels just five years earlier.

A fascinating interview with Dr. Salk on the Academy of Achievement website sheds light on his key personal attributes and values, which are vitally important for success in any line of work. And the best analytic tools will play a leading role in fostering that success.

1. The most successful people practice intuitive reasoning.

Dr. Salk explained how he could identify and solve problems more easily and effectively than others by following his intuition (perceptions, spontaneous creative thought), guided by reason (hard data):

Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way… both are necessary. For myself, that’s how my mind works, and that’s how I work… It’s this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.

It was Salk’s intuitive reasoning skills that ultimately led him to his polio vaccine research. Several years prior, as a second year medical student, Salk realized statements from two lectures on immunization techniques contradicted each other. He never got a straight answer as to why, which he (thankfully) could not accept:

It didn’t make sense and that question persisted in my mind… I just questioned the logic of it… I just didn’t accept what appeared to me to be a dogmatic assertion in view of the fact that there was a [medical] reason to think otherwise.

Intuitive reasoning requires not taking “because it is!” as an answer, and “actively pursuing a question and seeing where it leads.”

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Big Data Analytics, Business Intelligence and the Mind of Sherlock Holmes

My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people do not know. — The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

Sherlock-Holmes-Big-Data-Analytics-and-BI-133x134Sherlock Holmes turned 125 years old last year, and he’s never been more alive and well. The world seems more captivated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary London detective than ever before. Much of this excitement has been driven recently by the smash BBC One TV series Sherlock, drawing rave reviews for its update of Holmes and Dr. Watson as present-day Londoners fighting 21st-century crime. (Similarly, the U.S. version of the series, Elementary, is also a major new hit.)

Pop culture critic and author John Powers cleverly explains Holmes’ enduring appeal as a literary hero and cultural icon:

Sherlock Holmes “possesses no superpowers — his parents weren’t wizards, no radioactive spider bit him — [and yet] his gifts are cool enough to be superhuman. Playing to our fantasies of being smarter than everyone else, Holmes performs jaw-dropping feats of perception.

It’s no coincidence that heightened interest in Sherlock Holmes coincides with the rapidly accelerating, proliferating sources of information around us: databases, documents/text, big data, social media, web content and more. Like Sherlock Holmes, we all want to make sense of seemingly unrelated information and “be smarter than everyone else” — or at least outsmart the competition, outsmart criminals and fraudsters, outsmart seemingly intractable business problems.

A quick review of Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories reveals Sherlock Holmes shared useful advice on effectively accessing, analyzing, and unifying information. His advice rings truer than ever in today’s increasingly information-rich but insight-deficient world.

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The Pursuit of a Complete (Business) Picture: Lessons from Ansel Adams

My Attivio colleagues and I often describe unified information access as a technology that truly provides “a complete picture of the business.” I didn’t realize how appropriate that metaphor was until I recently visited a local exhibition of the photography of Ansel Adams (1902-1984).

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)

Renowned for his iconic black and white photos of untouched wilderness in national parks and other areas of the American West, Ansel Adams was a true visionary of modern photography, whose style and innovations exemplify the pursuit of a “complete” picture.

I see a clear analogy between Ansel Adams’ pursuit of “pure” (or complete) photography and the pursuit of a complete business picture.

Read the entire blog article on the SmartData Collective.

When Performance Metrics Attack! Complete, Agile BI Requires Going Beyond Just the Numbers

I’m reading Howard Schultz’s Onward by Howard SchultzOnward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing its Soul (2010). Schultz compellingly conveys his dedication and passion for the company and, of course, great coffee. Returning in January 2008 as Starbucks’ ceo (Starbucks uses lower case for all company titles), Schultz would save the company from its doldrums, rekindle long-lasting success and silence critics who had proclaimed Starbucks’ best days were over.

Just as important as what Howard Schultz did as ceo was what he stopped doing: Soon after returning to the ceo office, Schultz told investment analysts that Starbucks would no longer publicly report its same-store sales, or “comps.” Schultz’s wise decision would prove to be as critical to Starbucks’ revitalization as its new Pike Place coffee blend and Clover brewing machines.

Analysts were predictably annoyed by the move, but Schultz patiently explained that comps did not consider Starbucks’ grocery sales and other revenue beyond its cafes. But Howard Schultz had a far more urgent reason to stop reporting comps: comps had long become “a dangerous enemy in the battle to transform the company.” As Starbucks’ chairman, Schultz had realized the company had, slowly over time, “defaulted” to viewing the health of the company through the singular performance lens of comps; as long as comps were fine, the company was fine – except that it wasn’t.

Comps would eventually prove to be a harmful lagging indicator: as Starbucks persisted with excessive store expansion and a series of missteps that diminished customer experiences, comps remained highly favorable. Only long after “slow, quiet, incremental” damage did comps finally, and very suddenly, trend poorly. Schultz wrote:

Maintaining positive comp growth history drove poor business decisions that veered us away from our core… Once I walked into a store and was appalled by a proliferation of stuffed animals for sale. “What is this?” I asked the store manager in frustration, pointing to a pile of wide-eyed cuddly toys that had nothing to do with coffee. The manager didn’t blink: “They’re great for incremental sales and have a big gross margin.”

This was the type of mentality that had become pervasive. And dangerous…It is difficult to overstate the seductive power that comps had come to have over the organization…overshadowing everything else.

In hindsight, it was very fortunate that Howard Schultz had remained active as Starbucks’ chairman and was willing and able to step back into day-to-day operations as ceo. Having pioneered the company’s signature cafe stores, Schultz had the situational awareness to realize that “something wasn’t right” with the company’s customer experience years before comps finally tanked.

What about other leaders who also want true, long term success, but don’t have the same hands-on, ground-floor business awareness of a company founder? How do they acquire similar awareness to avoid overlooking slow, subtle damage to the company and instead make business decisions that promote genuine, long-lasting success? Here are a few essential requirements, based on some insights I drew from Schultz’s book.

Keep score based on how well you achieve your core mission. Howard Schultz had a true passion for revitalizing Starbucks around its core mission – its very reason for existing: delighting customers with its superior coffee and unique cafe experience. Pleasing shareholders was always part of Starbucks’ mission, but doing so slowly eclipsed its core mission, and eventually impaired shareholder value as well. Eliminating the rogue performance metric of comps gave the company “a new way to see” the business based on its core mission and “freed everyone to enthusiastically [re]focus on our coffee and our customers.”

“Get your hands dirty” in the “roots” of the business. Schultz rallied the company around its core mission – freshly updated with his global executive team – and aligned all operations, customer service, and decision making with achieving that mission. He called on everyone in the company to join him in that hard work, urging his executive teams to “get dirty, get in the mud, get back to the roots of the business” – a metaphor that resonated throughout the company. Long term leaders and managers must “get their hands dirty” – fully commit themselves to deeply understanding the key details of the company’s operations and its customers and take action accordingly.

Get a complete informational picture of the business. On his first day as returning ceo, Howard Schultz told employees that “to just go ‘back to the future'” of Starbucks would not be good enough to turn the company around. While the company would “need a piece of its past,” Schultz also believed “many of us at Starbucks had lost our attention to the details” – leading to Schultz’s drive to “get back into the roots of the business.”

By necessity, acquiring a deep, detailed understanding of the business at its “root” level requires a complete picture of the business far beyond numbers alone. Leaders and managers dedicated to long term success will therefore not be content with analytics limited to such superficial questions as, “So how are comps doing?” They will demand answers to far deeper, probing, “get your hands dirty” business questions, such as:

  • How do our sales performance, new product launches, employee retention, etc. correlate with customer sentiment expressed on social media sites, our online surveys, email and chat logs?
  • What complaints, compliments, and/or suggestions keep coming up? Is this customer feedback correlated to specific regions or locations?
  • What other factors we may not yet be fully aware of affect our sales, costs, and customer service: Changes in weather? Changes in local/regional tastes and preferences? And on and on…

Leaders cannot, and will not, wait weeks or months for answers from unresponsive traditional BI processes and legacy IT systems. Answering such vital questions that “dig into the roots of the business” requires a powerful new enterprise information “rototiller”: a new platform capable of providing complete, agile BI – drawn from the widest spectrum of enterprise information: not only structured data (databases), but also unstructured data (social media, knowledge bases, web content and other text-based information).

Take action in person. Make house calls. Howard Schultz used a medical analogy to emphasize the vital need for “root-level” business understanding:

Like a doctor who measures a patient’s height and weight every year without checking blood pressure or heart rate, Starbucks was not monitoring itself at a level of detail that would help ensure its long term health.

Extending Schultz’s leader-as-doctor analogy, the “doctor” must not only prescribe well-informed action for revitalized business health, but also administer it with a lot of house calls.

Once leaders and managers achieve that essential deeper “root level” of business understanding, they must take action based on those insights in a timely – and public – manner. Leaders must be visible to the managers and workers whose daily dedication and effort are critical to achieving the company’s core mission:

I sensed that people inside the company needed to see me… Showing up, listening to and talking with Starbucks’ partners was one way I got my own hands dirty… Whether I was in front of one person or thousands… I strove to be authentic and frank while threading optimism into every communication.

Onward provides substantial insight into authentic leadership. The book is a primer on reigniting internal excitement for the company and its mission, refocusing on the customer experience and growing through innovation with the customer and mission in mind. Leaders driven to achieve these goals and realize long-term success will reject superficial metrics in favor of gaining deep “root-level” business understanding. Doing so requires a cutting-edge, rapidly deployed BI platform capable of eliminating information silos and providing a truly complete business picture, drawing from all information sources – structured and unstructured, internal and external.

“Something is not Right!” Don’t Ignore Your Gut When Analyzing Information

Know What You Don't KnowTraditional data warehousing and data analytics vendors often present their solutions as a way to make decisions ‘based on objective facts’ rather than relying on ’emotional gut feel’. The problem, however, is the known ‘objective facts’ may not provide a complete and accurate picture of what’s really going on.

Even worse, some organizations over-emphasize hard data to the point of employees feeling compelled to ignore their ‘gut’, their intuition, that something is not right.

That’s a big mistake, says best-selling business author and professor Michael Roberto, in his book Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen – a book I first mentioned here on this blog not long after it was published in 2009.

Please read the entire article on the Smart Data Collective site.

What Superior Autobiographical Memory Subjects and Unified Information Access Have in Common

I am pleased to mention I have posted my first article on the Attivio Unified Information Access Blog, in which I discuss a parallel I see between people who have superior autobiographical memory – the extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from one’s personal past – and the need to combine objective (structured) data with subjective insights (drawn from unstructured content) to gain true understanding, “see the big picture” and avoid getting distracted by unimportant details.

Here is an excerpt:

The Gift of Endless Memory, a 60 Minutes story originally broadcast on December, 19, 2010, introduced viewers to emerging research on superior autobiographical memory – the extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from one’s personal past. The story featured five of the six people recognized by researchers as having this superlative level of memory, including actress and author Marilu Henner…

I would have liked to have learned much more about how each group member actively uses their memory to their benefit. How does each person effectively manage what amounts to a vast personal “database” of highly detailed memories, each one as vivid as any other, regardless of the passage of time?

Please read the entire article here:

The Gift of Memory – and the Gift of Perspective by Mike Urbonas