The Problem With An Over-Reliance On Data

“Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the worlds shittest PowerPoint presentation.”

The problem with data and how we’ve conflated data with truth. This has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Data doesn’t say anything. Humans say things. We’ve conflated data with truth. And this has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy

Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the world’s shittest PowerPoint presentation.

The slides, introduced by the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and its chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have been variously described as unstructured, ugly and unclear on what they were trying to get across to the public.

Whether you are pro, anti or ambivalent towards the latest lockdown – you had to be a near genius to draw anything meaningful from what was a truly baffling slide deck.

16 data heavy slides in just 12 minutes, some not even fitting on the screen. A spaghetti junction of graphs and charts rather than simple take away headlines. Labels and colour codes indistinguible or missing entirely.

This was a masterclass in how not to use data in your organisation.

There was a certain dark humour on Twitter with people wondering whether Death by PowerPoint was as painful as Death by COVID.

Of course, this is genuinely no laughing matter. How can key public health messages be delivered from the highest office of the country in a way that would embarrass the most inexperienced comms newbie?

One of the answers is that the data has been allowed to take over from the story. In the first lockdown the story was very clear indeed and we all complied. Now, I’m not sure we know what the story even is.

What the Government want us to do is to change our behaviours, and you make change through stories, not statistics.

We’ve all sat through presentations like this at work. We’ve all heard a presenter say “You probably can’t see this diagram from where you’re sitting but what it’s showing is…”.They are often put together by someone deeply in love with their own subject matter or persons with a strange proclivity for Venn and Sankey diagrams.

Whilst a good presentation almost always includes credible data, data alone doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. Having access to a lot of data is good. Knowing how to use it is better.

The reliance on data as a way to seek truth has boomed in recent years. The more data you are armed with the better, or so it seems.

I regularly hear companies say they are incapable of making a decision about something as they don’t have enough data, the right data, or because the data they have is of poor quality.

This notion of data equalling a divine truth needs challenging. As Andrea Jones-Rooy writes in Quartz, data only exists in the first place because humans chose to collect it, and they collected it using human-made tools. Therefore data is as fallible as people.

As she says “Data is an imperfect approximation of some aspect of the world at a certain time and place. As long as data is considered cold, hard, infallible truth, we run the risk of generating and reinforcing a lot of inaccurate understandings of the world around us.”

That said – we still need to believe in data. Data is necessary for us to understand the problem and to begin asking questions about it. It is only through asking those questions that we find a pathway towards a solution.

And therein lies the problem with the way much data is presented. It lends itself to generating confusion rather than great questions.

Or worse – it leads to mistrust.

Ed Conway, the numbers guy from Sky, has done a superb Twitter thread on this – “Lockdowns, like em or not, won’t work if no-one trusts the process and doesn’t comply. But that trust is earned. And easily lost. How do you earn trust? Well part of the answer is transparency. If you’re clear and honest about why you’re doing something and the evidence behind it, you will bring people along with you.”

Ed concludes that we need transparency, and that means not using out of date, poorly labelled charts to justify decisions. Or hiding data that helps explain why we’re facing unprecedented restrictions.

It’s a theme that Gavin Freeguard picks up for the Institute for Government – pointing out that badly presented data will be confusing to people inside government too. If we as the general public are having difficulty understanding messages across (and within) datasets, it suggests those inside government are having similar struggles. Indeed, making sense of the data is made nearly impossible by the sheer number of sources in use. There’s the ONS, PHE, NHS as well as other sources in Wales and Scotland.

The Case For Better Data

We need good data to ask better questions. It is only through those questions we’ll solve better problems and have greater impact.

We need to bring better data insights to our colleagues. We need to get better at ‘data storytelling’ that gives anyone, regardless of level or skill set, the ability to understand and use data in their jobs every single day.

It’s the best way to give our people the story about what’s happening and what we need them to do.

Poorly presented though, it may also be the worst.


Header image by Tom Fishburne

The Social Sector Must Rebuild Trust Through Equal Partnerships


This is a edited version of an article originally written for Inside Housing


There is a growing realisation that many of our social institutions and public services have run their course.

Communities need something different from what’s currently on offer.

We could be at the tipping point, the moment when future relationships between citizens and institutions become placed in a wholly different context.

There are a number of factors that seem to be converging. There’s the post-Grenfell concerns about safety and cost cutting, there’s the global decline of trust in institutions, and there’s an increasingly vocal public discourse emerging that highlights individual social sector service failures.

Combine all this with a perception that many social sector organisations have become untethered from their roots in the community, and you have the perfect storm.

Tipping points are not reached by just one factor alone, rather a series of connected incidents that suddenly bring about widespread change.

It’s necessary to note that this is not just a crisis limited to the one individual sector. The Civil Societies Futures report outlines how the world has changed, with people becoming more unequal, more disconnected from power and more divided.

The message here is clear: if we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and the essential foundation for everything we do.

Back in March I took part in a discussion hosted by Inside Housing with Lizzie Spring. There was a lot I took away from the conversation but it can be condensed into two main points.

Firstly, the language used by ‘professionals’ is damaging to relationships built on trust. What social media does very effectively is highlight where friction occurs. Nowhere is that friction more evident than when people in housing, health and social care cast themselves, often unintentionally, as professionals and experts to be listened to.

This behaviour can give off the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access (and exclusive language) to solve problems and design services on behalf of citizens. It implies a them and us, and reinforces an already unequal distribution of power.

Secondly, the core problem many organisations senior staff and Boards appear to struggle with is an entrenched inability to trust citizens. As Lizzie has said “I can’t consider trusting them, when my own intelligence, experience and expertise are discounted.”

We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities

Let’s not underestimate the extent of the change that the social sector must embark on to address this. To be trusted means being trustworthy – and to achieve that you can’t dodge the question about power.

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, there are important issues to discuss about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

If we don’t talk about power we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We risk encourage providers to seek comfortable solutions to things they should be doing anyway rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. These organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it.

There’s often no way for citizens to contribute or influence organisations other than ways set out by the organisation itself. When only one partner sets out the rules of engagement the game is set for a very unequal relationship.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate they see themselves as equal partners. Importantly that demonstration should only be through actions, not through a carefully coordinated communications campaign.  

There will be no silver bullet to these problems.

The answers may include exploring alternative models of management. They may include more radical models user involvement – perhaps using emergent technology to move to complete transparency, with people able to shape decisions at both local and strategic levels.

We are seeing change though. A conversation is beginning to happen on equal terms in shared spaces like social media. We need to take that conversation further into our communities and into our offices, not hidden away with one party excluded.

Traditional participation methods have failed us.

Involvement on the terms set out by the NHS, by social landlords, or even by Government, is no longer the only game in town.

 

Does Benchmarking Really Save Companies From Failure?

Even in the very best organisations, bad practice is waiting just around the corner.

In 2014 General Motors began the recall of the Chevrolet Cobalt which would ultimately affect nearly 30 million cars worldwide.

The problem was with the ignition switch which could shut off the car while it was being driven, disabling power steering, power brakes – and, crucially, the airbag.

The issue had been known to GM employees for a decade. A sixteen-year-old girl had died in a frontal crash in 2005, the first death attributed to the defective switches.

A redesign of the ignition switch went into vehicles a year later, but a simple mistake – the engineers failed to alter the serial number – made the change difficult to track later.

Ultimately the flaw would kill 124 people, and seriously injure 275 others.  Not recalling the vehicles sooner was deemed affordable in the pursuit of profit.

During this time, General Motors was leading its sector in customer satisfaction. At the same time as their cars were devastating families, they were picking up heaps of industry awards.

It’s common after the emergence of any scandal, be it VW, Oxfam, Mid Staffordshire, for us to call for tighter regulation, greater consumer controls, and transparency of performance.

But does any of this help prevent complex system failure?

The latest call is from the Social Housing Green Paper which has been published in response to the Grenfell tragedy and has been billed as a “fundamental rethink” of the system.

The government has suggested the introduction of new league tables, which would effectively name and shame landlords to highlight bad practice. The ‘power’ would shift more towards tenants and enable them to see how their landlord ranked compared with the average.

There’s also been talk of an industry wide Charter and an increasing focus on benchmarking.

Can You Benchmark Your Way Out Of A Crisis? 

Best practice and benchmarking are often just a race to be first at being average. The chances of someone else’s best practice working in a different environment is unlikely.

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink, and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations, a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things. In times when we need radical solutions to big problems – trying to be more like each other is a criminal waste of time.

When Good Companies Go Bad

It’s tempting to think that tighter regulation and scrutiny prevents system failure but there’s little actual evidence it does.

There’s a problem with managing risk retrospectively: you’re always looking behind you, and often looking in the wrong places.

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This graphic from a HBR study shows auditors are rarely looking at things that could bring companies down.  Policies don’t destroy companies, toxic cultures do. But cultures are rarely audited as it’s pretty much impossible to do – it’s easier to tick boxes.

When things go wrong in organisations it’s often the result of a complex web of perverse incentives, simple mistakes and a culture of people looking the other way.

It’s almost never because there’s a singular Bond villain type saying “I’m going to do this on the cheap even though it’s bad for customers and will probably kill folk”.

Redefining Trust In A Digital Age

There’s rarely a simple solution to complex problems but I see a huge opportunity for companies to rebuild relationships around principles of trust and transparency – and this won’t be achieved by charters and following a herd like regression to the mean.

The network effect of technology has created a way for people to share experiences more quickly, and to more people with more detailed information than ever before.

Today, any customer can go behind an organisation’s flattering customer satisfaction scores with a simple Google search.

To rebuild trust organisations must adopt new behaviours to reduce the gap between organisational rhetoric and the reality.

At Bromford that means pushing ourselves ever more local and away from the corporate centre – building relationships based on openness, respect, and accountability.

  • It means abandoning paternalism and the ‘we know best’ culture that has dogged the social sector for generations.
  • It means creating a culture where people do the right thing for the customer and call out inconsistent behaviours regardless of hierarchy.
  • It means establishing trust building as the number one goal, rather than the relentless pursuit of efficiency and profit.

I’m pretty sure General Motors, VW, and Oxfam would have been near the top of any industry league table.

You can’t regulate relationships and you don’t build trust with a Charter.

The market is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity anyway?

The End of Trust (and how organisations can rebuild it)

We’ve seen an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions, reaching the lows of the recession in 2009. Trust in government, business, media and non-profits is below 50% in two-thirds of countries, including the U.S, U.K, Germany and Japan. There has been a startling decrease in trust.  Richard Edelman

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The annual Edelman Trust Barometer is always fascinating reading but the 2015 edition is one that really should make us sit up and take note.

It appears we have entered an era of ‘trust deficit’ – where more people distrust institutions than believe in them. And we can’t blame those pesky bankers for this one – the causes are far more evenly spread that you might think.

It’s a truly global decline, spanning sectors and industries. The rise of connectivity and access to information, fuelled by social media,  surely play a part in this shift.

  • 60% of countries now distrust media.
  • Government is distrusted in 19 of the 27 markets surveyed.
  • Trust is strongest in non-profit organisations but even here it’s waning – alarmingly so in the case of the UK , down from 67% to 51%.

But don’t worry –  those crazy social disruptors and innovators will surely save the day.

Errr – except people don’t trust them either.

Indeed , public trust in innovation is no longer implicit.  As the report says “innovation on its own is not perceived as an inherent demonstration of forward progress, despite the near reverence for the term.”

51% of people say the pace of change is too great , with many ‘innovations’ appearing untested and unproven.

This is surely a wake up call to all of us working in Local Government, Health , Housing and Care. These are sectors that often spend an undue amount of time blaming other people for their problems. Problems , it seems , that lie somewhat closer to home.

Trustworthiness is said to consist of competence (ability), having the right motives (benevolence), and acting fairly and honestly (integrity). Any person or organisation who displays those attributes consistently will be trusted. But get any of them wrong, and you blow it. 

The impact of a trust deficit is tangible:

  • In public services a lack of trust means people not buying into services and values. If means a declining reputation, wasted resources and a sharp increase in avoidable contact and failure rates.
  • In business it hits profit , two thirds of people refuse to buy products and services from a company they do not trust, 58% will criticise them to a friend.
  • And those of us based in the UK will see the impact of the lack of trust in government on 7th May. People are increasingly disenfranchised from mainstream politics – especially, but not exclusively, the young.

So what do we need to do?

As the report says: The trust-building opportunity lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement.

Obviously there are some global mega trends at work here that are difficult to shift. But what can our organisations practically do to start building up trust?

Here’s five things we could all start doing tomorrow:

Stop saying how great your organisation is

There’s a huge dissonance in the public sector where services are often described as great when they are merely mediocre.

This includes the issuing of flattering press releases , massaged customer satisfaction scores and meaningless benchmarking results. The only people who have a right to say we are great are our customers.

Everytime we say how wonderful we are a little bit of trust dies somewhere.

Start engaging rather than broadcasting

It’s time to do less talking and more listening. Cut it with the jargon and PR doublespeak.

If you want to understand why trust in politicians is flatlining you need look no further than the Twitter feed of prospective Prime Minister Ed Miliband. To say this account is robotic is a genuine insult to our android friends. The Canadian hitchhiking robot HitchBot demonstrates more insight, humour, warmth, and humanity. 

We need to start acting , and talking,  like people again.

Default to transparency

Publish everything. Even your biggest mistakes.

I frequently talk about the work of Buffer , to my mind a truly transparent organisation. Take a look at their transparency dashboard which features details of salaries, profit and loss, even their emails. They have built a business with strong social media presence and enshrined transparency as part of their values.

How honest are our websites? Maybe we should ask our customers.

Stop innovating for the sake of it

The report notes that trusted innovation means us adopting a new framework rooted in dialogue, sharing information and fostering collaboration.

We need the various Labs , Accelerators and Hubs to adopt stringent methodologies for testing innovations and proving their worth before launching them to the public.

Our Bromford Lab and Research Team have begun to show our organisation and customers that testing social innovations in a robust way is not bureaucracy – but necessary evaluation.

Rather than launching initiatives in a blaze of publicity we’d be better off making test results publicly available for review, which 80% of people say would boost trust.

Turn your people into brand advocates

People just don’t buy our marketing anymore. They don’t believe us. We need to radically transform Communications and Marketing teams. Rather than gatekeepers they need to be enablers. The more of our colleagues we have on social , the more honesty we share, the more trust we build.

I’m a big advocate of social CEOs – but the report highlights they are regarded as the least credible sources. A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy.

To prevent further decline we need to consider whether every action we take is a trust builder or trust killer.

Every action, every report, every single tweet.

To rebuild trust we must show we are worthy of it.

The New Transparency

What does having an open social media policy say about a company?

For me , it says nothing about social media and everything about trust.

Trust in your people – you believe that they come to work to do good things , not wreck your reputation.

Trust in yourself – you are an open business and don’t have things to hide. You are ethical and you do good things.

I’ve been involved in a couple of discussions recently about the value of employer presence on social media. It emerged as number of businesses are considering scaling down their social media presence amid fears of risk and bad PR.

In those conversations we talked about a “new transparency” – something far more meaningful than whether you publish every item of expenditure over £500.

A transparency that says we are confident , even when facing criticism, in our people and our culture. We encourage each other to post and blog and talk about the work we are doing.

It’s a transparency that says , if you believe in our values then why not be our next customer or next recruitment?

More and more people are making career choices based upon the social credentials of an organisation. And more and more are seeing access to social media as a right not a benefit.

Far from being just another fad, your social media policy and the way you use it might well be your most valuable USP.

Social Media: A Trust Thing

I’m lucky. I’m part of an organisation where everyone has access to social media.

Anyone can set up a Facebook or Twitter account. Anyone can blog. Without restriction.

No Policy.

One Rule – “If you wouldn’t say it out loud in the cafe area – don’t put it on social media.”

So it’s shocking to read that 50% of the IT Directors in Europe think banning the use of Social Media in the workplace is a good idea.  At least according to this survey.

And , according to another survey , by 2015 , 60% of companies will be attempting to monitor employees use of Social Media.

What are we to make of this? And what does it say about the modern employer?

Let’s face it – Social Media can no longer be regarded as something new and dangerous. Pretty much every news bulletin will refer to a comment on Twitter.

So why do some employers still , in 2012 , think it’s something to be frightened of. Let’s ask the audience:

Ignorance, Short-Sightedness. Social Media as a benchmark of a companies transparency.

This actually isn’t about Social Media. It’s not about IT.

It’s about Leadership and Culture.  

And it’s about Trust and Empowerment.

  • Why would an employer think that the people they employ would prefer to sit all day on Facebook rather than do their jobs? Unless of course the jobs are so rubbish , and the leadership so poor , that this is the preferable option
  • Why would an employer think people would use 140 characters to destroy the reputation of their organisation? And if you have people like that – you could , rather than banning things , choose to do something about them
  • Why would an employer think anyone , anywhere , would want someone to monitor what they are saying?  Like a suspicious spouse checking through your text messages

If you are working to introduce more social media openness in your business – good for you.

But if you are in a relationship where either party does not trust the other – you would surely reconsider your position?

60% of employers will monitor social media usage.  50% will ban it altogether.

Want to have a relationship based on trust?

Leave them.

Find someone else.

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