Dr. Jonathan Koomey joins our conversation on big data with a timely frame: that of problem solving. The following post is an excerpt adapted for Markets For Good from the conclusions to Koomey’s 2008 book titled Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving. While I’m aware that “web speed” puts a premium on things that written just yesterday (for us to fully digest today), I was struck by a few principles that I remembered reading in this book back in 2008 and wondered if we could revisit them in the context of data. We thank Dr. Koomey for obliging.
Like the butterfly’s wing beat that ultimately leads to a hurricane, seemingly trivial actions can have consequences that reverberate through generations. With every action, with every day we live, we create the future. Of course, forces beyond human control also have influence, but it is how our choices relate to these external events that determine the outcome.
Mastering the art of problem solving is one important way to ensure that the future you create is a hopeful one. Analysis (supported by data collection) helps you make choices that are consonant with your personal values, consistent with your ideology, and reflective of the realities imposed by external forces.
Whether you are a businessperson, scientist, athlete, or accountant, analyzing your choices in a systematic way will lead to a better life. In that light, I offer the following lessons:
• Don’t be intimidated by anyone: The key issues surrounding all but the most technical topics can be understood by any intelligent and sufficiently diligent person.
• Be a critical thinker: Dissect your own arguments and those of others. Identify the premises and the main conclusion of each argument. Make sure the premises are acceptable, relevant, and adequate to support the conclusions. Finally, search for missing arguments and for counter arguments.
• Don’t confuse what’s countable with what really counts: Many of the most important things in life can’t be quantified, so don’t focus just on the numbers– they aren’t everything.
• Get organized: Clean up your office. Establish a filing system that allows you to find what you need when you need it. Buy the key books in your field, and make them accessible. Above all, remember that organization often beats brilliance!
• Question authority: Maintain a healthy skepticism of other people’s analysis, and ask questions until you understand their points. Clearly distinguish facts from value judgments, and make sure that others do so too. Don’t believe everything you read.
• Dig into the numbers: Look for internal contradictions, large differences, obvious trends, and cognitive dissonance. Compare results to independent sources. Take ratios of numbers, and make sure they relate in a predictable way. Focus on the essential: In creating your analysis, focus on designing consistent comparisons, developing credible scenarios, and using simple and understandable models to illustrate the key issues. Avoid complex computer tools unless absolutely necessary.
• Document, document, document: Documentation creates a trail for you and others to follow after the analysis is done. It is essential to any intellectual work but is oft neglected. By making it a priority, you ensure that your intellectual contribution will remain important and useful for years to come.
• Use the Internet—wisely: Rely on the Internet to conduct your research, share your data, and make your publications widely available. Ask critical questions about sources and use the collaborative power of the web to solicit feedback and commentary.
• Remember that others don’t care as much about your work as you do: It’s your responsibility to know your audience, address their concerns, and explain your work in an understandable way (preferably by telling good stories). Make your figures clear and compelling, your tables well documented, and your reports so valuable that your colleagues will treasure them for years.
• Synthesis follows analysis: Combining analysis results from different fields in creative ways often leads to new insights. Such synthesis is one powerful way to increase your understanding of the world around you. Don’t underestimate its importance.
Finally, the integrity of your calculations and the clarity of their presentation are both critical to your analytical success, but even more important is your focus on the issues that really matter. Too many people expend their effort on topics of only marginal importance. Your time is your life, so make it count!
I leave you with the environmentalist Edward Abbey’s excellent advice for those who are trying to change the world: “Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am–a reluctant enthusiast, a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure.” You can’t accomplish your goals unless you yourself are whole. Care for yourself and those around you. Take the time to do those things that replenish your energy and fill your heart with joy. Your children and our posterity will thank you for it. …
Curator’s Note: Here are a few more links from Jon. As you click through, what you’ll find is an accessible (plain language, real examples) and a mighty useful guide to critical thinking and problem-solving – very helpful as we dive back in to the data.
The Danger of disembodied facts: http://www.koomey.com/post/39543658454
Make your data tell a story: http://www.koomey.com/post/30040145631
Check out the Accidental Analyst!: http://www.koomey.com/post/27960738523
What is intellectual honesty and why is it important?: http://www.koomey.com/post/25385125958
Comments on the deluge of data from DNA sequencing: http://www.koomey.com/post/13624273609
Hammond, John S., Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa. 1999. Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.