Influencing Change: What Story Does Your Data Tell?

Don’t rely on logic and reason alone. Emotions, expectations, and the environment can all inspire action

The essentials

Anne Buff is a Thought Leader for SAS Best Practices as well as a speaker and an author. In a presentation to a culture of analytics conference organized by the Scotiabank Centre for Customer Analytics, Buff discussed how to help decision makers better understand data and analytics. The following is an adaptation of her remarks.

By Anne Buff

Your reasoning for what data story or picture you share will not necessarily resonate with the person who must make a decision based on that data. Your goal is not to provide the decision but to provoke the decision. This is different than giving them all the data and pointing out the pattern.

When communicating with an executive, do not rely on numbers. Instead, use language around the themes of “making them money”, “saving them money”, and “keeping them out of jail.” If you're communicating in an analytic fashion, use dashboards with green, yellow, and red. Make it easy and quick, and let them get through it and ask you questions.

Research shows that decisions are often based on emotions. One such study is in the form a game. Two people are placed in a room. Player one is told that there is $100 available but to get any of the money, they must give some portion to player two. Player two must accept the offer from player one in order for both of them walk out of the room with cash. You would think they would leave with money every single time, but that isn’t what happens.

Researchers have shown that when the amount offered to player two is 30 percent or less — player one would take $70 and player two would get $30 — player two says the game is off. Here is where the ultimatum, or rule of punishment, comes into play: if I'm going to get the raw end of the deal, you're going to get the raw end of the deal too.

That’s not all. When the players’ MRI scans were studied, they found that when player two turned down the money, the decision invigorated the sections of the brain associated with pleasure. So not only did player two refuse to take the raw end of the deal, he or she felt good about it.

When communicating with an executive, use language around the themes of “making them money”, “saving them money”, and “keeping them out of jail”

We're humans. We can be irrational, which is what makes changing behaviours so challenging. When talking about analytics and consumer, employee, or executive behaviours, there are three levels of understanding that you must get through: emotional; rational; and “what's in it for me?” To get someone to be data driven, you must get them all the way to “what's in it for me?” That requires understanding their expectations, preferences, and situational values.

Preferences are different from situational values. If you're doing customer analytics, you're probably aware of this; the drivers for what I prefer day in and day out follow classic segmentation models, except when I'm riding down the highway with three screaming boys in the back. When my situational values change, my general preferences are out the window.

So what can the business control? One is the degree to which you understand the expectations, preferences, and situational values of your decision makers. The other is the environment. You know what their needs, preferences, and expectations are, so combine those with the ideal environment to drive action. Don't change them, change their environment. And don't expect results overnight.

Don't simply throw data at people whose behaviour you want to change. Get them involved early so they are part of the story. While logic sounds reasonable and convincing, it doesn’t motivate or drive action. When you look at what people care about in terms of data, there are three levers: Does it have value for them? How easy is it for them to use that data in their day-to-day business work streams? And how much do they trust your data?

Remember, you’re not the one who can make the change but you can influence it. How flexible and adaptable are you in shaping your environments to ensure that happens?

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