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Don’t Trust Your Assumptions. Trust the Data.

How data can help you overcome confirmation bias and lead to a creative solution.

We assume we know what the real problem is, but we might be wrong.
• We can’t solve it until we look at it from an objective perspective.

I was listening to an interesting discussion on NPR one morning about aging in the workplace. The panelists were sharing stories and examples of how businesses were dealing with an aging workforce, and one particular tidbit struck me.

As a result of Japan’s high percentage of older workers, there are men in their 70s working at laborious jobs such as bricklayer. How? Their bosses provide them with a powered exoskeleton which gives them superhuman strength.

Another example was a technology company which was faced with the problem of not enough younger workers with the experience to replace older workers, yet the older workers’ productivity was greatly reduced.

Their solution? They analyzed their work environment and what problems their older employees faced that reduced their productivity. They found that a few simple changes — larger fonts on screens, wood floors instead of concrete (easier on old joints), etc — brought their older employees’ productivity back up to that of their younger counterparts, eliminating their workforce crisis.

So, what’s the point here?

The point is, don’t go along thinking that you understand the problem until you’ve tested your assumptions.

Assumption: We face a talent crisis because older people can’t produce as efficiently as younger people, which their aren’t enough of.

Data says: A few small, not so obvious tweaks to work environment could increase productivity of older workers, keeping them around longer.

Here’s another example.

A publishing client of mine produces a magazine which, for the sake of anonymity, we’ll call Widget Maker’s Monthly.

For a long time, they experienced flat growth in readership and website traffic, and couldn’t figure out why. They were running lots of informative articles about how to produce widgets more efficiently, and case studies about successful widget companies, but nothing was really catching fire.

Tasked with figuring out what to do, I immediately started looking at traffic to their website, but also traffic from their newsletter.

What I noticed was, their audience responded more enthusiastically to articles about business operations than they did about widget production. Sure, their business was producing widgets, but their concerns were about operating a business in general.

So, an editorial shift was made to focus more on running and growing a business, only within the context of said widgets. Readership and web traffic both increased significantly.

The publisher didn’t stop running articles about widget production, they just prioritized their editorial focus to put business solutions first.

The Takeaway:

  • Sometimes assumption can blind us from the truth. We get locked into a certain way of thinking, a certain way of seeing things.
  • When faced with a perplexing problem, it’s imperative to take a step back and look at it in a new way.
  • The best place to start is by looking at the data.
  • Data is objective. Data can be manipulated, but if you trust your source, data doesn’t lie. It has no reason to.
  • Once you have the data, you not only start challenging your blinding assumptions, but you begin to engage in creative problem solving.

Do you have an example of how a re-examination of a problem led to a creative solution? Or do you have a perplexing problem that needs an objective perspective? Let me know about it in the comments.