I’m in my office in the state capitol building a few years ago, sitting around a large conference table filled with Solo cups, boxes of partially-eaten pizza, crumpled napkins, legal pads, laptops, and a cross functional team of technical folks and analysts from various agencies (most of whom I don’t know) getting more-and-more frustrated with me.
I understand why. The feeling is mutual.
We’re discussing a problem. The nature of the problem doesn’t really matter, because tomorrow we’ll be discussing a very different problem. And next week, we’ll be discussing yet another problem, and so on.
Sadly, our approach always seems to be the same. The make-up of the team changes, but in general, they rush in, guns blazing, with admittedly nothing but good intentions, vigor, and the passion of being public servants out to do good and make life better for our citizens.
They start gathering data. Then the first data set makes them think of other data sets. They ask what would happen if we combine the two (or three, or four)? Then, we make requests to the IT folks to get the right access and to create data marts and data lakes so we can pool all of this into one big collection. In comes the statisticians to analyze the data. The data viz folks are closely on their heels with their digital Ginsu knives out ready to slice-and-dice the analysis into (what I’m told) are amazing and colorful charts and graphs (I’m blind, so it’s all lost on me). Then…the team takes an exhausted breath and schedules a meeting, with pizza, in the conference room.
So here we are. They start right in before I’m fully-seated. They hold a slice of dripping pepperoni in their left hand, and their slide advancer/laser pointer in the other, and start talking to their slides (which again, I can’t see).
I stop the meeting, as they are swallowing their first bite, and politely ask, “What new insights do we have after all of this work you’ve done?”
Crickets. And since this is Utah, sage brush slowly rolls its way down the hallway outside. If I could see their faces, I suspect I would see a lot of pleading, “What do we do now?” glances. Did I mention, before, that I can feel a mist of frustration starting to enter the room and swirl around our ankles?
We have spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours from well-meaning, hard-working, well-educated, smart professionals to arrive at a work product that is essentially a detailed description of, “We have a problem.”
I already knew that.
They thought they were making progress. They mistakingly confused describing the situation with solving it. I have no new actionable insights. I cannot walk out of that room, down the hall to my office, and know how to fix this thing, so I can move on to the next issue.
Big lesson learned for me as a leader. These talented folks were doing exactly what they were trained to do — what their managers and leaders have always asked them to do. I realized it was up to me, and to their respective leaders, to guide them to a new-and-better way of approaching assignments like this. This was our fault as leaders, not them, but that’s the subject for another article. Back to the point…
Does More Data Make Us Better?
We, as government leaders, now have access to far more data than ever before. We are swimming in it. We are living in the data utopia that data scientists and analysts from a decade ago could only dream of. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we have 100 or 1,000 times more data now than our predecessors. Are we producing 100 or 1,000 times more value for our citizens than they did? Are we 100 or 1,000 times better off?
We are not.
Our data and analytics teams can be a powerful resource to help us gain more insight into the problems we face. But, far too often in my experience, they can also be a source of reams-and-reams of data points that overwhelm us with so much noise that we can’t possibly hear the real signal.
At the end of the day, data are just words and numbers. It is our ability to think clearly and to ask the right questions that can turn data into insight, and those insights into solutions.
I’m concerned that we’re looking to data, and the very smart team members we hire that can manage, analyze, and visualize it, as our modern-day wizards and oracles. We seem to believe that if we can just pool enough of it in the same place, some kind of mystical chemical reaction will take place and voila! The insight we were searching for, the solution to our problem, will crawl forth from the primordial ooze. If nothing is crawling out at us, we must need more of it. Or to stare harder.
I’m tired of it. We need to learn how to think. Our great breakthroughs started with wondering that sprouted out of the soil of intuition. That wonder led to a great question, which led to a well-formed hypothesis, which led to testing, and so on. We need to learn to trust our hard-won intuition and pattern recognition and then use data to confirm or disprove our hunches. We need to learn to categorize data into two big buckets: 1) “This is just describing the situation in more detail”; and 2) “Now, this is useful and insightful!”
In short, we need more signal, less noise — much less noise. And we need to know how to tell the difference.
Kristen Cox is executive director of the Utah Office of Management and Budget and author of Stop Decorating the Fish and was a featured speaker at the 2019 ICMA Annual Conference, sponsored by Cigna. For more on this topic which includes case examples, you're invited to join a free webinar on February 26 titled, "Stop Decorating the Fish - Part Two: More Data".