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

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Ludwig Bemelmans’ classic children’s book Madeline has been enjoyed by generations of kids — my daughters included. The story also has an important lesson on “knowing what you don’t know.”

In Madeline, Miss Clavel, the teacher and caregiver of twelve little girls in a Paris boarding school, suddenly awoke one night sensing trouble:

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, “Something is not right!”

Sure enough, she found little Madeline crying in her bed, in pain from appendicitis. Of course, all turns out well, thanks to Miss Clavel listening to her personal sense that something was not right.

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Having frequently read Madeline to my daughters years ago, that story came to mind while reading Know What You Don’t Know: How Great Leaders Prevent Problems Before They Happen, the first of many excellent books by business professor Michael Roberto.

Perhaps one of the most troubling causes of unseen problems mushrooming into catastrophes noted in Roberto’s book is an organizational culture that pooh-poohs intuition in favor of hard data:

Some organizations exhibit a highly analytical culture [to the point that] employees may self-censor their concerns.

In one case, a manager told me, “I was trained to rely on data that pointed in the opposite direction of my hunch that we had a problem.”

The manager’s hunch was correct; there was indeed a serious problem. And yet, the manager, “relied on the data and ignored that nagging feeling in my gut.”

Roberto drives this point home with a medical crisis spanning hospitals across the US: Troublingly high levels of cardiac arrest among admitted patients. One study found hospital personnel who observed some advance warning sign(s) of cardiac arrest alerted a doctor only 25% of the time! Why? Nurses and other staff often felt a Miss Clavel-like sense that “Something is not right” with a patient who was indeed nearing cardiac arrest, based on a personal observation, such as a change in the patient’s mental condition, or a higher level of fatigue or discomfort — but with no accompanying change in patient monitoring levels — so the concern is effectively ignored in favor of the patient’s quantifiable data.

The consequences of a hospital culture that unwittingly encourages caregivers to ignore their intuition are high. Once the window of opportunity to avert cardiac arrest closes, a life or death “Code Blue” crisis is at hand.

As Roberto’s hospital case study illustrates, a gnawing sense that “Something is not right” should not be ignored, but rather recognized as an alert that you probably do not have all the facts, but just some of the facts — that is, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Recognizing this issue, many hospitals have implemented new Rapid Response Teams that have sharply reduced Code Blue incidents. Nurses and staff are actively encouraged to report observed changes in patient affect, reported symptoms and other concerns, even if they are not supported by patient data. Once notified, the Rapid Response Team will arrive at an affected patient’s bedside within minutes and actively diagnose whether further testing or treatment to prevent a cardiac arrest is warranted. Unlike a Code Blue team that “fights the fire” of a full-on heart attack, Roberto writes, a Rapid Response Team “detects the smoke” of a potential heart attack.

Traditional 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 is, however, the known ‘objective facts’, the known ‘hard data’, may not provide a complete — or even accurate — picture of what’s really going on. For example, structured data sources generally cannot on their own integrate vital additional business signals often buried within such text-based information sources as field reports, knowledge bases, wikis and other documents. 

So, listen to your gut, your intuition, as a signal that you need to dig deeper into the matter at hand. Actively seek out further information beyond the hard data available to you. Compare that information with your hard data and “connect the dots” for a far more complete picture, which may well yield surprising new insights.

What I find exciting is that unified information access is playing a vital role in empowering managers and leaders to connect those dots between data and other silos of information to realize those critical new insights.

Unified information access integrates, joins and presents all related information — structured data and unstructured content alike — to complete the informational picture and significantly expand what organizations “know” to determine with confidence whether “Something is not right.”