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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When All You Have is an Analytic Hammer, Does Every HR Challenge Look Like a Nail?

I found the wording of this tweet interesting: What software will IBM use to “solve HR problems”? From the article linked in the tweet:

[IBM] unveiled several new technology services that would apply big data and analytics processes to human resources problems. 

One service, predictive hiring, would use large volumes of behavioral assessments and other employee data to better understand the traits that are characteristic of top performers, and then comb through candidates to identify potential hires. A predictive retention service would analyze workforce data — exit interviews, for instance — to identify those employees most likely to leave.

What strikes me here is the flawed assumption that job applicants bring high-performance traits with them through the door, or they don’t. It sounds like an example of Maslow’s law: If your only tool is a [analytic] hammer, every [HR] problem will look like a nail.

confirmation-bias-at-workplace

“We’re here today to identify the unique traits of our top performers.”

Since existing leaders will decide what the “traits that are characteristic of top performers” are, they may well end up defining the ideal employee profile in their own image – a clear example of confirmation bias.

Analyzing the traits of perceived top performers who have a long history with the company runs afoul of survivorship biasFrom David McRaney’s blog-turned-book You Are Not So Smart:

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other…

When a company performs a survey about job satisfaction, the only people who can fill out that survey are people who still work at the company. Everyone who might have quit out of dissatisfaction is no longer around to explain why. Such data mining fails to capture the only thing it is designed to measure…

The reality is that workers’ attitudes in the workplace can and do change significantly over time in response to the organization’s own traits, for better or for worse, depending on whether the work environment is proactive or risk averse, collaborative or politically charged, collective or exclusive.

Liz Ryan, former HR VP and founder of Human Workplace, hits the nail right on the head (bad hammering pun, sorry) in her article:

In order to hit our goals in any organization, we need to build positive energy in the workplace. We need people to be excited about their work…

Can you measure that excitement level? You can’t measure it, but it will show in the results that you do measure, from customer satisfaction to turnover to earnings per share. Anyone in your organization will be able to tell when the excitement level is high, low, or nonexistent. We’d have no trouble reading the energy waves at work if we remembered to stay human on the job.

To her credit, Liz Ryan doesn’t pull any punches in rejecting impersonal, technocratic measurement of employee engagement. I doubt the predictive analytics described above would fare any better with Liz than the hollow ritual of the annual employee survey:

If we really care what our employees think, it’s easy enough to find out… We could ask them how they’re doing… We can be human at work…

We don’t have to insult our employees by having them fill out surveys so the people charged with employee engagement can go to the leadership team and say “Look! The employees are 68% engaged. Look how well I’m doing my job!”

Give up the employee engagement survey, drop the junk-science patina on stupid HR practices and learn how to be human at work. You’ll be amazed how the team’s energy will power your success once you let it start flowing.

Analytics, when created and used appropriately, can be a powerful force for success, but there are also many new technologies that help actively engage employees and cultivate employee positivity and productivity. Gamification platforms are just one such example. Here in Boston, for instance, the WeSpire platform engages and energizes employees around company sustainability and social responsibility programs.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it” is an old saw, but it still rings true – especially when leaders choose to seek out genuine, human interactions and build an energetic, collaborative work culture, which should yield much better employee outcomes and improved individual and team performance.

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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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.

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

Today’s Best Marketing Organizations Run Like Winning Football Teams

Football-and-MarketingI read a great Ad Age article, Four Talent Categories You Need to Win in a Connected Worldby Chris Kuenne. Recognizing that many marketing organizations still cling to “old school” marketing and PR, Chris Kuenne provided a timely description of the must-have talents, skills and attitudes found in today’s leading marketing organizations that actively contribute to business growth and success.

To support his key point that “the old set of skills and conventional deployment will not work,” Chris Kuenne offered up a sports analogy:

In [American] football, everyone is a specialist with a distinct position and responsibility. Each player goes one-on-one against his opponent, helping the team advance the ball in a linear fashion down the field. Marketing over the past 50 years reflected this linear approach, in which a brand’s marketing plan specified a highly planned, seldom altered, set of initiatives… Today marketing is closer to rugby. All players handle multiple roles, using many different skills…

I agree with Chris Kuenne’s historical and current assessment of the marketing function; however, today’s game of football is actually brimming with innovative tactics. I’m sure that I underappreciate the tactics in rugby, but I see a lot of parallels between the practices of winning marketing organizations and winning pro football teams:

Transformation through Innovation. Both football and marketing have benefited dramatically from innovation.  The “linear, seldom-altered” football game Chris Kuenne referred to actually describes how football was played over a century ago by such feared college teams as the Army team and its predictable but very successful smash-mouth running game.

And so it went, until Notre Dame, in 1913, unveiled an innovation that would transform the game: The forward pass (!), recently legalized but widely ignored. Quarterback Gus Dorais and future football legend tight end Knute Rockne led Notre Dame’s surprise passing attack that surprised and confused the Army Cadets. The Fighting Irish cruised to a 35-13 upset win.

At roughly the same time as Notre Dame’s game-changing use of the forward pass, John Wanamaker, the pioneer of the department store, made his famous remark, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Similar frustrations by marketers have continued right up to present day!

Thankfully, marketing innovations today are replacing decades of linear, seldom-altered, interruption marketing with a still-evolving paradigm of content marketing, permission marketing and marketing automation technologies. The marketing function is undergoing its own game-changing, “forward pass” of innovation and transformation.

Improvisation. In the football game of an earlier era, the coach’s called play was the play, no matter how obviously ready the defense was ready for it. Today’s football calls for champion quarterbacks to decipher disguised defenses in real-time and “call an audible” – a quickly-improvised new play (Peyton Manning turned this into part science, part theater throughout his career). Teammates must also recognize the need to improvise a play as well: wide receivers must know when to “cut their route” and expect a very quick pass in response to an anticipated  rush on the quarterback. The defense must be ready to change its coverages at a moment’s notice as well.

The old school coach’s “command and control” of a football game has given way to much more flexible play-by-play in response to real-time game situations. In similar fashion, members of winning marketing organizations are afforded the autonomy, and have the skills, to make real-time corrections during a marketing campaign or other activities, and do so collaboratively with others on the team.

An obsession for analytics. Today’s most effective professional teams – not just “Moneyball” baseball – but pro football, basketball and hockey as well – are utilizing data analytics in ways and depths unimaginable even a decade ago. Sports analytics can help predict future success on game day and optimize success off the field (e.g., demand-driven ticket prices, non game day function space usage). Celtics co-owner and venture capitalist Steve Pagliuca recently called Boston “a new Florence” for sports analytics.

A similar analytic renaissance within marketing is now in full swing. I encourage you to visit Scott Brinker’s Chief Marketing Technologist and start with one of Scott’s all-time favorite posts, Rise of the Marketing Technologist. The active use of analytics is a force multiplier for effective marketing as it is for successful sport teams.

Leaders with genuine acumen and leadership skills. Chris Kuenne provided advice to CMOs equally applicable to football coaches when he wrote that leaders “must encourage collaboration across radically different temperaments, skills and backgrounds.” That’s an accurate description of football and marketing teams alike.

Just as important are the coach’s/CMO’s own qualifications: how many, how much of “hard skills” – the vital talents, skills and attitudes identified by Chris Kuenne – does the leader in question really possess? Has the coach/CMO demonstrated his or her “soft skills” – a proven ability to “attract, inspire and retain the best talent”? Coaches and marketing leaders alike can neither succeed nor even “get by” without these essential talents.

Put simply, authentic leaders, like champion coaches, attract and inspire highly talented professionals.  Poor coaches and poor business leaders repel talented people.

Pro football fans will readily recall the unfortunate failure of Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress, resulting in his high-profile firing during the 2010 season. Brad Childress’ implosion, summarized by Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com, should serve as a cautionary tale for those in any executive position who lack genuine leadership skills:

Childress had never been a head coach at any level. He had been the offensive coordinator of the highly successful Philadelphia Eagles, but coach Andy Reid called almost all of the plays over that period… [As Minnesota Vikings head coach] Brad Childress had a distant relationship at best with players, feuding with most key veterans at one point or another. And his schemes were uninspiring and rigid, routinely minimizing the skills of talented players… They felt neither inspired nor challenged.

Winning marketing organizations, much like the best football teams, are typically led by savvy, authentic leaders who encourage innovative thinking, seek out new analytic insights, understand key challenges and needs, and translate that understanding into new, engaging customer experiences that build new business. They are the ones setting new rules for marketing success.