Data-driven journalism has driven some of my recent posts. I blogged about turning anecdote into data and how being data-driven means being question-driven. The latter noted the similarity between interviewing people and interviewing data. In this post I want to examine interviewing people about data, especially the data used by people to drive their business decisions, which are not supposed to be driven by anecdote or intuition.
This subject reminds of the classic American Western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which was adapted from a short story written by Dorothy Johnson. Liberty Valance (played by Lee Marvin) was an outlaw terrorizing the frontier town of Shinbone. Ransom Stoddard (played by James Stewart) accepts Valance’s challenge to a gun duel, during which, despite his lack of gunslinging skills, Stoddard kills Valance with one shot. Heralded as a hero, Stoddard goes on to have a long and successful political career as a governor and United States senator.
Years later, Stoddard returns to Shinbone to attend the funeral of Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne). A newspaper reporter asks Stoddard for an interview to explain why a senator would make the long journey from Washington, D.C. for the funeral of a local rancher. Stoddard reveals in the interview that Doniphon was the man who really shot Liberty Valance. However, upon hearing the truth, the reporter burns his notes and utters perhaps the film’s most famous line:
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”
My point is that sometimes when interviewing people about business decisions, especially ones that produce profitable business results, you uncover a story that recasts a successful intuition-driven decision as a data-driven decision. This justifies intuition by selectively choosing data that supports the decision already made, creating a legend that becomes fact. The human mind is exceptionally good at doing this. The term for it in psychology is confabulation. For example, after buying my new smart phone, I chose to read only the positive online reviews about it, allowing me to justify my decision instead of admitting that I just bought the phone that looked cool.
In The Data that Supported the Decision, my imaginary film adaptation of the data-driven decision making story, when an intuition is used instead of data, the decision maker utters the infamous line:
“This is the Business, sir. When intuition makes the decision, confabulate the data!”
In the era of big data, confabulating the data is almost too easy since selective post-decision data analysis can easily find data for creating legendary facts about the data that supported the decision.