Yesterday, I traveled from Munich to Ottawa. Perfect time to get some reading done. Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the famous book ‘Emotional Intelligence’ recently published a quick follow up on his ubiquitous book. It is called The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights and you can buy it on on Amazon.com for your Kindle.
There is an interesting chapter in the book. Goleman talks about the role of self-awareness in decision making. Research found that you need excellent self-awareness to make good decisions. He describes the story of a highly intelligent lawyer who underwent surgery to get a tumor removed from his brain. Unfortunately, the part of his brain that helps with self-awareness got damaged. Despite an excellent recovery, the person ended up not being able to make any decisions anymore. His intelligence was still intact. Even small decisions like: “When should I meet with my Dr” were big hurdles for the poor guy. Goleman writes: “….in order to make a good decision, we need to have feelings about our thoughts.” Data and information alone therefore do not necessarily guarantee good decisions. The human factor is still there.
Goleman describes a study of highly successful entrepreneurs. They were asked how they make decisions. Goleman found that there is a common theme:
“First, they were voracious consumers of any data or information that might bear on their decision, casting a wide net. But second, they all tested their rational decision against their gut feeling – if a deal didn’t feel right they might not go ahead, even if it looked good on paper.”
Indeed, Business Analytics play an important part in decision making. The technology and processes deliver the raw materials for these ‘voracious consumers of data’. As a matter of fact, one could argue that business analytics enable people to become ‘voracious information consumers‘. Without the data and information, it becomes difficult to make good decisions.
While this sounds so obvious, it is important to keep in mind when it comes to building a business case, for example. Maybe you can use this small insight for your next meeting. A few weeks ago, I wrote about a similar story: Creativity and Innovation. Analytics are indeed an important enabler.
Before I forget, Daniel Goleman’s book is a great read. Lot’s of interesting insights and plenty of remarkable studies. I highly recommend it!
The other day, I made a bold statement about presentations: many of them suck and they especially suck when it comes to presenting data. Real meaning is often hidden in complex and dense charts. The problem is sometimes amplified by poor communication skills.
PRESENTATIONS ARE DIFFERENT
There is a fundamental difference between sitting in your office analyzing data and sitting in a meeting listening to a presentation. The second setting requires a lot of focus. Listening can be really hard at times and it is easy to loose track when we drop our attention for a few seconds. And there is no rewind button. Every time a new slide comes up our attention shifts to that slide. Our brain tries to make sense of it. Following the speaker during that brief moment is tough. The more complex a slide the longer this moment lasts and the higher the probability that the audience gets lost. To ensure that our messages are understood, we have to be thoughtful about how we present our data. Here are a few ideas that you can use to make your data sing:
One of the basic things I recommend is to utilize charts for presentation slides whenever we can. Reviewing raw data in a presentation setting is extremely difficult. We should not have to stare at a projector screen to make sense of data. It takes away too much focus.
Sure, there might be cases when people need to see that raw data but we can always share printed documents as backup materials if necessary. Make it simple for your listeners and visualize the data. Look at the two contrasting examples below: it takes a while to consume the table, but the line chart immediately makes sense. Even on first sight.
2. CHART TYPES
Make sure to carefully select your charts, though. Not every visualization lends itself to delivering a crisp message. Once again, the things that may work for us at our desk do not necessarily have to work when we follow a presentation. The rule of thumb is to choose the chart that can most easily be understood. That might sometimes require us to drop some information. Once again: we can always supplement our slide show with backup materials. If you have difficulties selecting the right type, take a look at some advice on this site.
But even charts can either be too complex or we load them up with too much noise: 3D, logos, gridlines, pictures and unwise choice of colors. As a result, viewers and listeners have a hard time understanding. Presentation guru and author Garr Reynolds calls for a maximization of the signal to noise ratio: eleminate everything that could stand in the way (noise) of delivering our message (signal). Take a look at the example below. There is too much going on and our eyes tend to jump around.
Let’s reduce the noise and focus on the just the signal (below). Isn’t this much better?
4. MAKE IT EASY
We should eliminate everything that stands in the way of being understood by the audience. In other words, we should make it as easy as possible for them to quickly catch the important items. We can do this by amplifying the signal. Take a look at the slide above: the headline features the key message. Also, note how the 2009 bar in the prior chart immediately pops out: This must be the year our CEO left! I can see it immediately. A simple but effective trick.
5. CREATE FOCUS
Too many slides are way too busy and people easily loose attention. My basic rule is that we should only deliver one message per slide. Don’t try to cram everything into a single slide. Remember: slides are cheap! Nobody is forcing you to deliver your message in less than ten slides. It’s up to you to decide. Allow the audience to absorb the information and then move on with your story. A simple and single message on each slide ensures that the attention is quickly refocused on you – the presenter.
The slide above is way too busy. We jump around and try to figure things out. But let’s apply the rules and also create focus on a single message that we will spread across two slides:
Try to incorporate these tips into your next presentation. They will make a big difference. And it does not have to be complicated. Applying these things will help you make meetings more effective. And by doing that you can make a big contribution towards making sure that the investment in Business Analytics does not go down the drain when we put our information on slides. We owe it to ourselves and to our colleagues.
A few days ago, I took friends to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle. It’s close to my house – right around 100km and I have been there many times. But no matter how often I go there, I am always amazed by the stunning beauty of this monument. It is situated amidst rugged and snow-covered mountains. Awesome waterfalls, lush forrests and pristine lakes surround it. This is the stuff you read about in fairytales. The person who had this castle built truly had a stunning vision.
THE CASTLE BUSINESS
Fabled Bavarian King Ludwig II is known as the fairy-tale king. Born in 1845, he had a thing for beauty and architecture. And he had a big vision for himself and Bavaria. Under his reign, several amazing castles were built across Bavaria. Each one of these castles is highly unique and breath-taking: there are hidden grottos, magic dining-room tables, mirrored dance halls. And this is why millions of tourists from all over the world flock to these castles. They spend their precious money on tours, horse-carriage rides, souvenirs, food, drinks and hotels. It is safe to say that the economic contribution of these sights is enormous. Bavaria is benefiting from these castles in a big way. Vision accomplished!
This interesting story sparked a discussion amongst our group: What if the king had not followed his vision and played it safe? Would Bavaria be as popular and famous amongst tourists as it is today? What would have happened to these remote regions? Difficult to say, but we all agreed that things would be quite different. The king did run into serious resistance when he built his dream castles: while the general public supported him (the castle building created many jobs in the poor and remote regions), his ministers did not appreciate his personal spending habits and vision. The tried to block, hinder and deceive. But the king did not get bogged down in short-term thinking. He did not try to please his ministers. No, he poured his entire energy and fortunes into accomplishing his goals. The one thing we can safely say is that the King’s decisions ultimately led to the long-term well-being of Bavarian tourism.
TOO MUCH SHORT-TERM THINKING?
If we look at how many businesses are run these days, we have to observe that long-term thinking is quickly becoming a rare sight. We are so focused on making our next quarter’s numbers that we often loose sight of our vision. We cut expenses to make margins today but we sacrifice our ability to innovate which will hurt us in the long-term. We push customers to purchase our goods and services at times when we should be investing in long-term relationships. Investors are impatient and the day and age of the Internet seems to have taught many people that they should expect instantaneous gratification. Most of us know that this wrong and we often hear bloggers, analysts and managers complain about this periodic short-term thinking.
There is so much opportunity out there today. Much more opportunity than we have ever had. But we are often at risk of not fully leveraging the moment, by wanting to take it all today. Making a bold vision happen is very difficult if we are guided by short-term thinking. Shouldn’t we start shifting our focus back towards longer-term decision-making? Shouldn’t we strive to give up a little bit right here and right now to ensure that we are more successful in the future? This is true for our companies and for our personal lives. Why don’t we reconnect with our personal vision and the vision of our company? Let’s make a change today and start building some castles!
FINAL REMARKS: One could argue that the King followed the wrong vision. He did spend a fortune on his projects and the value was not quite apparent at that time. Unfortunately, King Ludwig II. ultimately paid the highest price: His ministers were discomforted by his behavior and managed to have him declared insane. He was arrested at Neuschwanstein and admitted to a mental hospital at Lake Starnberg. His dead body was found the next day. He supposedly drowned in knee-deep water. He remains extremely popular in Bavaria and many people suspect that he was killed (he was known to be an exceptional swimmer).
“The Flip changed everything. From 2008 to 2009, the video camcorder market grew by 35 percent. Flip products represented 90 percent of the growth.”
What is going on and what can we learn from this story?
In case you don’t know the Flip: it is the simplest camcorder available in the market. Its inventors took a highly complex product (that was probably collecting dust in the camera bags of millions of people) and made it super simple and easy to use. The Flip only has a few simple buttons and even a kid can learn how to use it in under a minute. The quality of the recordings is excellent for most situations. This simplicity lowered the barrier to shoot high quality video and people starting buying and actually using the Flip everywhere. The Flip has been ranked as one of the bestselling items on Amazon for a long time. I am personally sad to see Cisco shut down this business. But I believe that there are three lessons we can all learn.
This story is an excellent reminder of how quickly things can change these days. Product lifecycles are getting shorter and shorter. It supposedly took the radio over 38 years to reach 50 million users. The iPod did that in just about three years. A different camcorder I bought just four years ago now has a market value of roughly 5 Euros on eBay. Businesses need to embrace this speed. They need to be prepared to deal with this. Complacency is no longer viable. What worked yesterday doesn’t have to work tomorrow.
STAYING ALERT AND AGILE
The other lesson of the Flip is that all businesses need to stay on their toes. Competition for products and services can come from completely unexpected areas other than our traditional competitors. The Flip for example was not threatened by the traditional camera manufacturers like Canon or Panasonic. No, the biggest competitor is/ was the smart phone. Why bother with a Flip if you can use your iPhone to record decent video? And the smart phones threaten some other product categories as well. Just like Cisco, the traditional GPS producers have been trying to figure out how to compete in this new smart phone world. Traditional media like TV stations and newspapers are now facing severe competition from Twitter, blogs etc.. In other words, we all need to stay agile and aware. We also need to encourage our organizations to keep innovating. If we stop doing that we will most likely loose out. If you look at some of the successful businesses these days, you will find that most of these are known for its agility and innovation: Apple, Gore, Google to just name a few.
But the biggest lesson for me here is that all companies need to get better at decision making. It is easy to believe that the smart phones have pushed the Flip out. But as of today (April 19th, 2011) the Flip is still one of the top-selling products today. No, there must be more to it. The reason for Cisco’s decision is probably caused by either a wrong decision they made two years ago or by a sound forward-looking decision they made last week. Many people were surprised when Cisco announced the acquisition of Flip. It just didn’t seem to fit into their portfolio and the smart phone market with integrated video was just taking off. This raises the question whether Cisco really went through the proper decision cycle including a thorough market analysis and also proper scenarios techniques. But another way to look at this is that Cisco might be really good at making decisions: the Flip is still selling well but the outlook of small camcorders being replaced by better smart phones is on the wall. Either way, given today’s rate of change it is ever more critical for all businesses to have situational awareness (how are we doing and why?) and to have the ability to think and plan ahead. Business Analytics help us make those critical business decisions.
Too bad about the Flip. I love it and still use it frequently despite my iPhone. Lessons learned here: Embrace the speed; stay agile & creative. But most importantly: let’s get better at making sound business decisions. Cisco spent 590M USD on this specific decision. Too bad!