There is no better indicator of reality than reality.
At one time, that statement wasn’t particularly controversial. In fact, it was hard to get people to trust data.
But times have changed. Now data rules. When reality contradicts the data, people seem to side with the data.
That’s a problem. Data are not reality. Neither are policies, processes, guidelines, org charts or any other attempt to define how your business should work. All of those are simply attempts to describe what should be or is happening. But that’s not always the same as what is happening.
Here are three quick examples of people/organizations trusting their representations of reality over what was actually happening. Do any of these types of mistakes sound familiar?
But I’m standing right here
In 2014 my brother opened a restaurant in Montauk. His restaurant was located on the site of a previous restaurant with a different name.
After several months, Maps still showed the name, reviews, and other pertinent details about the old restaurant.
My brother submitted a correction to Google.
Within a few hours of submitting the correction, he received the following response
“Upon reviewing your suggested change for Restaurant Name (I’ve removed that actual name), we have decided not to apply your suggested change at this time, as we found the existing details to be more appropriate” (emphasis added).
Data: Outdated information about a restaurant that used to be in that location
Reality: A person standing in the location of his new restaurant
Reality – 0
Representation of reality – 1
But you are tracking
A friend of mine is a digital literacy teacher in an elementary school.
He was once troubleshooting an issue with a vendor’s educational website. He noticed the site used the Facebook data tracking pixel.
After a lot of back and forth, the company finally removed the tracking pixel.
However, he and his boss wanted some assurance that this type of thing wouldn’t happen again. They scheduled a meeting with an executive from the company.
Data: Policy document stating that they don’t track students
Reality: Facebook tracking pixel on website
Reality – 0
Representation of reality – 2
But I did
One of my clients uses a third party for invoice processing. The company is supposed to facilitate faster payments. Using them is optional.
The company requires all invoices to be submitted in hard copy. This adds additional time, effort, and cost to the process. It also pushes payment back since the invoice takes longer for them to receive.
For a number of reasons, I recently started invoicing my client directly again. In December, I submitted four invoices, all by email (per the instructions of the local purchasing contacts at my client). All four invoices were approved within a week.
I contacted the company that had previously processed the invoices. I asked why they required a paper invoice when the client was willing to accept an electronic invoice.
They forwarded my question to one of the client’s global purchasing associates. She promptly replied that her company (my client) DOES not accept email invoices (emphasis added). She attached a link to the corporate policy.
Data: Policy/process document stating that they don’t accept invoices via email
Reality: Instructions from local entity to submit via email AND four invoices accepted via email and approved.
Reality – 0
Representation of reality – 3
It’s a clean sweep. Reality loses 0-3.
So what’s the point?
People have become so immersed in their virtual worlds (in this case, the world of data and descriptions of their business) that they stop focusing or immersing themselves in the real world.
Business occurs in the actual world. If you are going to succeed, that is the world that must be understood.
You can’t argue against reality. If something is happening, it’s true. Whether it shouldn’t be happening or whether it is an anomaly are irrelevant. It’s happening. It is the most definitive piece of data.
Jeff Bezos once said, “The thing I have noticed is that when the anecdotes and the data disagree, the anecdotes are usually right. There is something wrong with the way that you are measuring it.”
Process designs, policies, and guidelines are an attempt to describe how reality should be. But they are not reality. People and organizations don’t always follow their processes/policies. This is especially true when processes and policies are set at a corporate level but execution occurs at a local level.
Data are an attempt to describe what reality is. But they are not reality. Metrics are invented. Choices are made as to what data are included, how and when the data are collected, and what calculations are performed. All of those choices can distort reality.
Thinking critically requires that you understand and confront reality. You can’t describe it away.
Data, process descriptions, and policies are all helpful tools for making sense of what’s going on around you. Just remember, they aren’t reality. Don’t let them get in the way of seeing what’s really happening.
Not all representations of reality are equal. Part of your job is to determine which are most credible.
No proxy for reality is ever more accurate than what is actually happening.
Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.