A while back I was running a data mining project for a customer and made a conversational blunder. In one of the meetings, I mentioned seeing one interesting relationship in the data. Customers who purchased one particular product tended to buy and implement a second product at a later time. I did not realize that Everyone in the room INTUITIVELY knew that there is absolutely no relationship between the two products. A big blunder. After the meeting, two friends told me that my standing in the whole organization decreased because of that one statement.
Two lessons are worth mentioning here. First, know your audience. Second, and more importantly, know how to influence the amount of freedom in the room and increase it before making a statement like I made. My mistake was not in stating the relationship in the data; it was the timing of the statement. I could have done more to prepare the audience so that the statement would have been appreciated more. This preparation consists of increasing the amount of freedom of expression in the meeting.
Freedom of expression is critical to thinking creatively during an open discussion. How do we increase freedom of expression? We increase it in two ways that corresponds to the two forms of freedom: Positive and Negative. Both are good, and both are needed. Positive Freedom is the ability to change under your own power. For example, a car with an empty gas tank has low Positive Freedom. Negative Freedom is the lack of obstacles in your way. A car stuck in the mud, deep the woods, away from the road has almost no Negative Freedom. A car with gasoline and on the freeway has both forms of freedom.
Social discourse, which is critical to problem solving and innovation, needs both kinds of freedom, just like our example of the car. Positive Freedom comes from information; current, trusted, applicable information. This information is needed for the conversation to have importance. This potential impact is what makes Data Science important. Information is fuel to a conversation as gasoline is to a car. It creates Positive Freedom.
Positive Freedom alone is useless and can be damaging. I thought I was adding to the conversation when I made my blunder about the relationship in the data. I did not realize that the low amount of Negative Freedom in the room created a hostile environment. It was like driving a car into a tree: ample Positive Freedom but no Negative Freedom. I first needed to work on the Negative Freedom in the room, then work on the Positive Freedom.
When in a meeting, watch who speaks and when. Are only a few people allowed to ask questions? Is anyone ever discounted? Do you hear words and phrases like “obviously”, “we all know that...”, “never”, and “not possible”? When this happens, your job is to encourage others to speak out, to give credit to creative statements, and to acknowledge innovative ideas. Support others and acknowledge brave statements. Spend time removing obstacles, increasing Negative Freedom, and encouraging others to participate. Then, and only then, add fuel to the conversation.
By managing the amount of both Positive and Negative Freedom in the room, your chances of successfully influencing the discussion and resulting decisions from your work as a Data Scientist improves. Your impact on the organization on the decisions, as well as the process of decision-making, becomes positive and compounded.