The key to inovation is not in a spreadsheet
Businesses seem to value analytical skills highly. Indeed, a recent study found that 68% of all job postings list “analytical skills” as a requirement or desired characteristic and 39% of all resumes claim the applicant has that quality.
Dictionaries define analysis as the separation of a whole into its component parts.
Ok, breaking things apart and then being able to understand each of the components separately. That is an important skill. If we have a complex problem to solve, decomposing it into self-contained components helps us to organize a group of people to solve it efficiently. That is the basis of the Classical Strategic Process.
But we all know that more often than not, analytical data in companies is manipulated to support the agenda of the person creating the PowerPoint presentation. A study found that 84% of all cited statistics are manipulated or made up to support a pre-made conclusion. That includes this one and the one in the first paragraph of this article.
I am hoping that the examples above show that well crafted baseless “analytical” headlines can be very effective tools of communication and influence.
But when businesses talk about analytical skills, they are thinking about the ability to use analysis to drive good business decisions based on historical or real-time data. As someone with self-declared strong analytical skills, I am a big supporter of that.
Most businesses and projects are too complex to be solely grasped holistically. Good and honest analysis can help us to identify the key performance metrics to both monitor and identify problems and target efforts for continuous improvement.
I am a skeptical about analysis being the key to growth and innovation. Let me explain why.
Humans are very good at establishing and detecting patterns. Most of the times we do it unconsciously. To illustrate that, you might want to take this short Vision/Brain test. I guarantee it is short, fun and enlightening.
True innovation happens when we look at incomplete data and are able to fill the blanks before it becomes obvious to everyone else.
Your typical analyst can find whatever is hidden in your historical data. If you want to improve processes, optimize existing business, identify problems, monitor and improve performance, prioritize actions, then the answers are there and you need good analysis.
To innovate, create new business, develop new products, you need to detected patterns, look forward and synthesize the future. To increase the organizational capacity to innovate, you need to leverage good synthesis – or “analysis of the future” (I love the research firm IDC tagline).
So here are some thoughts I offer:
- If you have no time nor interest in directly participating in the analysis, ignore the numbers and focus on the rationale. In my corporate career, I’ve seen too many decisions being driven by bogus cited statistics off a PowerPoint presentation.
- Most of us have strong innate synthesizing skills. If you want to leverage that human characteristic, expose data at the point where it is needed, trust and empower people whenever possible. Afraid people will be confused or misled by incomplete or noisy data? Look at how good regular people are filtering the extreme product reviews at Amazon.com. Look at the vision test above.
- Hire people with good analytical skills to look at the aggregation of data. Be honest and transparent when using the results of the analysis. If your intention is to start the spreadsheet from the bottom line, skip all the analysis crap. Real-time KPI dashboards are good because they inhibit “what-if” spreadsheet manipulations.
- If all you are going to give people is decomposed tasks and personal MBO goals, they don’t need “strong analytical skills”. Stop asking for what you don’t need or, better, start offering holistic views of problems, data and the freedom to act outside the corporate boxes they are in.
- If you are a successful business leader, it is probably because of you have above-average synthesizing skills. Remove the line about strong analytical skills from your resume.