The role data plays in culture

Data is vital for any business. From sales to strategic markers, from absenteeism to acknowledgement systems; there’s never a shortage of numbers to represent our work. All businesses produce mountains of data, but when it comes to shaping your culture, there’s data that matters, and there’s data that is simply distracting.

So what data should we focus on when looking to shift our culture? Great question; glad you asked #loveasmartaudience

The data you search for

Once you’ve determined what cultural journey you want your team or organisation to embark upon, you want to extrapolate any data that suggests movement in that direction.

For example, if you want to drive a five-star customer service culture, celebrate any example that showcases great care and customer intimacy. If it’s a culture of innovation you’re after, put courage and risk taking front and centre—even if it fails—to show your employees how important this is.

Beware of false data

As you embark upon any cultural shift, there will always be a tension between where you are and where you want to be. Data tends to add to this tension. How often does it happen when you decide to pursue one avenue (say, online sales) and an existing pathway presents compelling reasons not to change (shop floor sales up by 70% last quarter)? Happens all the time, doesn’t it? 

Our challenge is to refocus on where we want to be, remembering the old adage what made you successful today won’t make you successful tomorrow. The problem is that people trust what they see much more than the promise of what they can’t see. So we have to massively reduce the feedback loops on examples (data) of our new cultural shift. We need to tell the relevant stories. 

People buy emotionally

The neuroscience now backs up what marketers have known for a very long time; people buy based on emotion and justify their decision rationally. Data on its own is logic, but it won’t achieve buy in. But data presented as a story—that’s our chance to engage the collective limbic systems (emotional centres) of our workforce.

New York Times bestseller Brene Brown suggests stories are simply data with a soul, and that’s the lens we need to apply to this all-important data sharing. Put simply, unless it can be crafted as a story then it quickly becomes redundant in an information-rich, time-poor world.

Four criteria of a story worth sharing 

If you’re extrapolating data for cultural purposes—and you should be—then a useful process on assessing whether a piece of content is suitable for story is to measure it against the following criteria. As a minimum it should;

1. Exaggerate the elements

Exaggerate doesn’t mean lie or embellish. It simply means to add colour beyond the obvious. The original purpose for the word  ‘exaggerate’ means to pile up, heighten or magnify. This is what we need to do when transforming data into story.

If Bob speaks up at the next team meeting and says: 

“Sally’s been great. She closed a heap of sales this week, up 30%.”

It’s hardly inspiring or captivating. It’s just data. But what if Bob were to address the team meeting a different way? What if he were to tell a backstory of Sally’s struggle when she first arrived? Perhaps he could bring to light the facts of her struggles with a particular client and how she then won them over? The people, environment and context are all areas rich in colour that can make simple data incredibly meaningful.

2. Celebrate the people

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to corporate anthropologist and best-selling author Michael Henderson talk to one of my clients about culture. Michael is a cultural advisor to the All Blacks, Canon, McDonald’s and many more. He knows his stuff.

Amongst his deep knowledge emerged a story of the Kalahari Bushman, and specifically how they share their stories after a hunt. The Kalahari tend to swap weapons before a hunt so when they return with their food for the tribe, they all get to share in the success rather than just one victorious hunter.

While the honour of sharing the story rests with the one who delivered the fatal blow, their sharing of bows and arrows with one another before the hunt gave the story teller the chance to celebrate the fact that they couldn’t have done it without their colleagues. Very cool.

3. Venerate the service 

A key separation between data and a story is how well it connects higher-order values. Simply sharing data that shows success can often be a braggart’s call. But sharing data that connects the reason why your business helps each other—specifically the people they work with each day—is hugely valuable. 

It’s the glue that can bind a team, break down silos and ultimately have them all sharing these stories. 

4. Propagate the purpose

Of course, it’s the big one. Churchill to Martin Luther King Jnr, Mandela to Gandhi all told stories that moved nations. But it wasn’t simply facts personified. It was facts that showed evidence in a greater belief. The data you share in story form should be a representation of your highest values in business.

So mine the data in your business, but ensure it takes flight beyond a spreadsheet or ledger. It’s too valuable to be left simply to the boffins and bean counters and not be taken forth on your cultural journey.