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This is why your voice isn't being heard in business meetings

There's nothing more frustrating than having your point of view ignored in professional discussions. You've put a lot of time into analyzing the situation, and have important insights to add, but nobody is listening! It's particularly frustrating when it's about the project you're working on, since it's so annoying to implement a design that you don't believe in. When you find  yourself in a situation where you can see a bad decision forming like a thunderstorm, is there anything you can do to stop it? Why does it seem like nobody is listening to you? One reason may be that you're trying to being too rigorous, which is blinding you to the real issue at hand.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

We all got into data because we love the idea that we can understand the world with absolute clarity, through numbers. However, as we have all experienced, there are many situations where you don't have numbers, or don't have a sufficient sample size to achieve mathematical certainty for our decisions. This is a critical juncture, and it's too easy to take the easy way out and focus your analysis on something that you do have enough data to make progress on. Remember though, the goal of analysis is not to prove whatever is convenient based on the data at hand, but to get as close as possible to understanding the critical aspects. Getting too far from that is analysis paralysis. Decision-makers at the top are going to place less emphasis on whether you have completely proved something that is tangentially relevant than if you have some insight (even just a back of the napkin sketch) on issue that is at hand. If you were all cleaning house together, and your boss asks you to take care of the kitchen, do you think that they would be impressed if you came back and reported on how incredibly well you had swept the tile floor? It is easy to make visible progress on some tasks, and even bring them to a state of objective perfection. In contrast, scrubbing pans is both frustrating, and unlikely to ever get rid of every single stain in every single corner. But it's clear that a kitchen with gleaming floors and disgusting pans is less useful than one with a dust bunny in my corner, but sanitary cookware.

Similarly, your business decision probably has facets which are possible to pin down with near certainty. Maybe it will be difficult, and requires the latest and greatest machine learning algorithm. For most of us, that makes it all the more exciting! But we need to remember that the purpose of the exercise is to actually make the best decision, and ignoring the frustrating, messy, subjective aspects of the situation is going to make your viewpoints irrelevant. What's maddening, is that people often won't tell you why they're not incorporating your point of view into the decision-making, which is why the reader needs to be constantly aware of "am I answering the most important question here?"

The Answer Isn't at Your Desk 

When you see yourself getting too deeply involved in "tile cleaning", don't be afraid to reach out to someone with more domain knowledge about the area and ask them what they think the biggest issue at hand is. Think of yourself like a newspaper reporter, maybe even a data journalist like Nate Silver (more on him here). You bring some expertise to the table for sure, but at that moment your primary job is to treat them as the expert and ask as many questions as they will give you time for. I guarantee that some of those questions will spark an idea for how you can bring your skills to bear on a aspects of the decision that you hadn't even thought of before. Remember -- the world is always more complex than it seems when you are sitting at your desk. The only way to explore this complexity is by talking with people who have a different perspective on the situation. Talking to other people who view the world primarily through data is like sitting next to somebody and asking whether they can see around the corner. They're probably very smart, but their viewpoint is almost exactly the same as yours.

So get out there and push your comfort zone, ask somebody who sees things differently, and see if the two of you can work together to assemble an understanding that no one person could have come to alone. Only then are you adding unique value, and people who add unique value are not only heard, but actively sought out when it comes to making a big decision.

Matthew Ritter writes practical, action-oriented data advice at Preinvented Wheel

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Tags: business, decisions, meetings


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Comment by Matt Ritter on November 13, 2015 at 3:23am

Appreciate the feedback - I've submitted an edit, and will balance it from the beginning in my next article!

Comment by Barbara McGillivray on November 13, 2015 at 3:11am

I couldn't help but notice that the post uses masculine pronouns when referring to generic people. In my opinion, a more balanced approach would make the author's points stringer.

Comment by Matt Ritter on November 10, 2015 at 5:10pm

Jargon is tough. The worst are phrases that you think you grasp, but which are being used with a slightly different meaning that you expect. Getting involved in conversations across the company certainly helps with understanding the subtleties of its use.

Comment by Anthony King on November 10, 2015 at 5:12am

A very big thanks for the comments to my first post! As with a lot of new IT terms the underlying principles are often rooted in history and it's is easy to get lost in jargon! The biggest challenge is in helping businesses to understand the business rationale and to leverage the benefits effectively!

Comment by Matt Ritter on November 10, 2015 at 3:14am

Spot on! It's valuable to remember that analysis is not just about returning a massive, comprehensive document after hours of deep thought. Some answers only arise out of the interplay between multiple experts. The Harvard Business Review started raising this issue as early as 1957! Fortunately they found that some diligent focus on the issue could yield fantastic improvements: "At the University of Minnesota we have been presenting a course in listening to a large segment of the freshman class. Each group of students that has taken listening training has improved at least 25% in ability to understand the spoken word. Some of the groups have improved as much as 40%."

Comment by C. Sachs on November 9, 2015 at 8:45pm

One of the aspect of my job as an analyst that I found most satisfying was learning the business processes of the staff and administrators. This not only helped me become a better analyst, but also provoked a discussion that helped them better understand their own processes and identify areas for potential improvement. For me, those casual office conversations lead to much insight while giving both of us in the conversation a better understanding of one another's roles in the organization. The longer I was on the job, the more in-depth my knowledge of the business became and, with it, the better my ability to not only met the analytical needs of the business, but also to be more integrated in teams that required my skills in analyzing data, creating dashboard and process measures, and helping identify areas for improvement (and identifying areas where improvement initiatives were heading toward dead-ends.) The exposure that I had through these conversations helped build trust, respect, and open minds at the table when I had something to offer up to the discussion at hand.

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