My dad is eighty. He is an amazing man, friend, teacher, Nonno, community citizen and more. I kind of worship him. He uses a phrase when he is astonished by something that has happened: he always asks, can you imagine?! It is an invitation to consider his story or the event. Even better, it is often accompanied by a crinkly smile and a chuckle, as he invites you to be curious, and discuss further.
My dad came to Canada in the 1950’s, at the age of 17. He has seen a great deal and experienced so much change in the age of transformation. He started out laying concrete and learning English, and now (during his so-called “retirement”), you can often find him helping his community or family, or relaxing with his iPad reading his newspapers in more than one language, or playing word games. He is the embodiment of the question can you imagine? And he does.
Taking a cue from my dad, I have always been curious, seeking to learn and imagine. These instincts have served me well throughout my career, and in my role supporting a vibrant community of consultants and coaches who partner with Actionable, using our platform to track how their client organizations are embracing behavior change as a result of their work.
Helping our partners unpack and understand the data coming out of the platform is a big part of my job—and is often uncharted territory for consultants and coaches who typically have no visibility into how their client engagements are impacting change. It is a mindset shift for them, one that is made much easier with a spirit of curiosity, and a willingness to ask the question, can you imagine?
As I consider both the aggregate data coming out of the platform, and the client specific data that I work through with our partners, I have channeled my dad’s curious and expansive mindset to ask more questions about the numbers I am looking at in the attempt to understand trends, circumstantial influences, and even visual patterns. Here is what I’ve discovered:
- Seeking out information from a giant spreadsheet of numbers can be daunting.
- Approaching with curiosity, and thinking about ‘what do I want to find out?’ and creating a list of those items is helpful in getting to the core of what is useful versus what is simply nice to know.
- Layering the learning from the data can be a lens for initiating other thinking (more to come on that in a future post).
My conclusion, discussed with other data-geek colleagues, is simple: look at the numbers without interpretation. Consider the possibility that they are telling us something simple, and try not to make a case in any direction for why that number exists—it just is.
The numbers can guide us toward interesting questions and discussion. Little imagination here right? And yet, approaching the data from this perspective can open up new possibilities, reveal interesting starting points for deep discussion, and free us from the rigid and ingrained thinking that we all carry with us.
Think about this as an example: most of us are trained to think that the higher a number—whether a raw number or percentage—the better. Our school systems are built on the idea that if we don’t cross a certain threshold of performance, we fail. Even worse, these measures of success or failure were often based on our ability to recall information (as opposed to problem-solving), on standardized tests that failed to account for a variety of learning styles, or graded on a curve related to the performance of others.
Can you imagine if the number you found, in relation to zero, represented a difference (large or small) that simply shows you something took place? This shift from the norm can open up some truly expansive thinking.
Imagine if the number, no matter what it was, was not an indicator of ranking or measure of success. Imagine if that number could simply be the indicator that something took place, and to sit with that for what it is.
- Ingrained thinking: you won 75% of your proposals
- Can you imagine thinking: you won 38 new proposals
Which sounds more productive? Which interpretation of the data gives you momentum and a more pure indication of what you have before you? The percentage leads you to feel like you have not been successful because you lost 25% of your proposals. You may even spend valuable time digging into what went “wrong” in those 25% of proposals, letting your ego get in the way of celebrating (and working to deliver) the 38 proposals you did win.
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t examine what happened when things didn’t go according to plan—it’s good practice, and can lead to some great insights. However, what I am suggesting is that if we look at the numbers without judgement, and without all the bias we’ve had ingrained in us, we can open up new possibilities and ask some really interesting questions.
Looking at your business from the can you imagine perspective is not about blue sky thinking, it’s about pushing the boundaries of what you are considering and avoiding the trap of getting stuck in how you’ve always operated. Taking an opportunity to look at your business in this way—a little free-er, with a little more curiosity, a little more “can you imagine if…’—will give you the impetus to see what is possible, to decipher the numbers and seek out patterns that could lead to positive change, and use data to open your eyes to what is in front of you and what you may be leaving on the table.
This is a great exercise to do when considering your time: time at the front of the room, time client-facing and pitching, time on your business. Can you imagine what you could be missing or the patterns that could evolve? Both could lead to significant changes in how you operate.
Take a lesson from my dear dad, the can you imagine? question gives you pause, and who doesn’t need that in our fast-paced world?