Living in a data-drenched world

Is the world becoming more data-driven? Are people increasingly comfortable with using data to inform decisions? Or is it just a stick that we use when we want to, when it suits us?

I have occasionally re-told an anecdote I read somewhere, in an article about Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Meyer, that when presented with facts about this or about that she will ask to see the data. And what she (apparently, as I’ve remembered it) says is ‘OK, well let’s look at the data. But if you don’t have any data then I guess we’ll have to go on opinions – and if we’re going on opinions, then we’ll go on mine…’.

I haven’t told that second- or third-hand story very well, but it’s really about how that particular leader seeks to create a data-driven approach to decision making and it sets the tone for what I wanted to explore – the rise of data in everyday life.

The company I work for, Brandwatch, is largely a data-driven business. The original core leadership team are all pretty left-brain –  very numerical, big fans of spreadsheets, use mathematical terms for non-mathematical matters. A good chunk of the people in the company are software developers and so often come from that same scientific background, and of course the business itself is in the business of data – we process and store hundreds of millions of pieces of data and we also carve, filter, distil and visualize them beautifully for clients. Everyone in the company to some degree worships at that same metaphorical altar.

Since joining the company and operating in the role I’m in, I have noticed how I have become more data-driven. I have become more sceptical of loose stats and easy assertions and in my own way I’ve found myself pursuing answers in numbers, enjoying locating shifts and patterns, being shocked and excited when confident gut instinct has been entirely 180 degrees in the wrong direction. And although I already was, I have become an even greater admirer of those that can divine real insights from data – there are one or two people and one or two teams in the company who especially stand out in this regard, and they are legendary, sought after and coveted, like mythological creatures (OK, not really – I’m getting over excited).

So I am wondering about this in broader life. Is this world where data is increasingly abundant and available changing how we live as individuals and in society?

Is it good to be data-driven?

Data-driven itself is an unusual phrase isn’t it? A couple of years ago I was swapping career histories with a guy who was also a therapist (as well as a consultant) about ‘being driven’ and he pointed out that whilst a popular turn of phrase, it does also powerfully suggest that the individual is driven rather than driving, and to explore what or who might actually be driving (I think his point was that it’s very often parents who are the drivers). Applying that same such language-driven logic to ‘data driven’ opens up a peculiar but interesting idea – that these people and organisations are being driven by the data rather than themselves. Is that right? Doesn’t sound right.

But it does make me think about the modern phenomenon of the risks that I and others have taken on bikes to beat public personal bests which, after all, are just tiny little data points. And of that desperate feeling when one returns triumphantly from some kind of physical endeavour to find that one had forgotten to start the GPS watch / running app / or whatever. Who was driving who? What if the little orange iPhone app is the brain and I’m just the meat that’s frantically mashing the pedals? 🙂

It also ties interestingly to things like Dan Pink’s work on motivation and the up and downsides of linking rewards to incentives, although I probably need to revisit those to position them correctly in this context.

Wearables and personal data

Even before Apple Watches the ecosystem smart phones, their many lifetracking apps and activity trackers like FitBit and Jawbone Up have been starting to give us interesting and sometimes powerful and influential insights into our own little worlds.

I wonder how that will increase over time, as the sensors multiply (heartrate, blood sugar, sweat/stress, whatever else is possible) and what that will do to everyday life.

How will personal data inform relationships (‘you said you weren’t going to eat anything bad today!’) beyond how it already has through things like location tracking and conversation storing, and not only in the family but also with doctors, authorities, insurers, employers? That whole question takes me to some interesting and dark places. It makes me also then think about Incognito windows in browsers. Who’s tracking who? Who does this data empower? (See also: VRM)

Data in society

If this broader trend towards using data to inform decision making is indeed happening, you’d imagine that science would be having a profound effect on things like religion, politics, education and on hot topics like climate change or drug rehabilitation. But aren’t all of these things continuing to be weirdly devoid of ‘what the data says’ and instead much more powerfully driven by ideology, history and norms?

I would love to believe that we are somehow progressing as a species because technology and the internet have enabled us to be better connected to the truth (whatever that means) but it really doesn’t feel like that’s happening. If anything it feels like the internet allows us to find and hangout with the atomized groups who feel and believe EXACTLY WHAT WE BELIEVE, thank you very much. 1 billion silo’d digital villages. That’s a sad idea. Is that how it is? And if it is, how can we change it?

I’m drowning over here

Finally, it feels like just as businesses are suffering from data overload and breathe a heavy sigh when presented with the topic (yet again) of Big Data, so too will individuals. Don’t you already find managing notifications on your phone slightly exhausting? So many little demands for attention, so addictive and habit-forming. Multiply that by your smartwatch and your Internet of Things enabled home thermostat and smartcar sensors. How will we keep up? This for me opens up a bajillion interesting opportunities around dashboards, information radiators, filtering and curating – and something about the DIKW pyramid (!).

I think I’ll finish with a quote from William Gibson’s latest book. Like so many Gibson one-liners, it nails something very present about our challenge, and our opportunity too:

“I feel hindered by a surfeit of information, oceanic to the point of meaningless” – Lowbeer, ‘The Peripheral’.

Google Firestarters NYC

Last week I went alone to the first Google Firestarters here in New York.

It was great. Really great.

If you haven’t come across the programme, it’s a format for Google to spend time with agency folk, in particular planners. Neil Perkin curates it, and he is a genuinely great curator. That particular gift combined with the Google brand means that you get a very good quality of people. And planners are cerebral, smart cookies working in a creative services environment, whose job it is to be very up to date and who work daily with translating lots of input into big ideas. Ben Malbon, Director for Creative Partnerships at Google, brought Neil and the Firestarters format over.

The topic was ‘the new agency OS’ – how do agencies need to be in order to thrive in this changed world.

The line up was outstanding:

  • Ian Fitzpatrick, CSO, Almighty
  • Johnny Vulkan, Founder, Anomaly
  • Noah Brier, Founder, Percolate
  • Spencer Baim, CSO, Vice Media
  • Sarah Watson, CSO, BBH

Over the course of the evening, a few things struck me:

1. This is the center of the world 😉

Of course, I would say that now that I live here.

But what a line up. I have followed Anomaly distantly for years and loved their hybrid model, their venturing. Percolate is very hot, a startup doing great things, so to hear from Noah was exciting. Vice is obviously interesting and significant, BBH provide some blue-blooded pedigree, and Almighty I confess I hadn’t heard of, but I really enjoyed Ian’s opener. It just felt like a superb proper proper event lineup. It was a privilege.

There is something of a counterpoint to that ‘centre of world-ness’ I suppose. 3 of the 5 speakers were British, which was kind of thrilling and embarrassing at the same time. Made by Many got namechecked 2 or 3 times and Clearleft, fellow Brightonians, were referenced once – mainly by Ian who was one of the Americans. So it was enlightening to me, and unexpected, to see the British influence at the heart of American agency-land.

2. Code as a metaphor or proxy for culture

Ian from Almighty introduced this idea that there are ‘big’ small agencies and ‘small’ big agencies, and in fact what we meant by this was a short-hand for their shared code, their accumulated history, their ‘this is the way we do things around here’ through assumptions and convictions.

He used that to talk about stripping back code, about hiring people from different backgrounds and other related ideas, but just that core nugget itself is interesting to me as someone helping to rapidly grow a software startup – given the challenges that creates around culture and given how tech-centric a big part of our team are.

3. The OS and the Apps

Sarah Watson had the most idea-sy approach and I warmed to that, particularly as she was last up. What she did was took this question of the new OS for agencies and differentiated between the OS itself – the platform – and the Apps.

Sarah’s point, I think, was that the OS is like the agency’s culture. And that efforts to evolve or combine agencies often concentrate on the nuts and bolts, the process and teams, and not on the OS. And they founder, because the OS is what fundamentally advances or holds back – this is the stuff that governs who is allowed to speak, what is prioritised, valued and rewarded.

Again, for me it wasn’t so much about how well the detail of the idea was landed, but the idea itself. It was good to be reminded of the different elements at play in systems, and to sophisticate an organisational metaphor that continues to gain in momentum.

4. Getting back to big ideas matters

As I walked the 10 mins from Brandwatch in Flatiron to Google in Chelsea, I realised how little of this I’d done – feeding my brain – since I’ve joined just over a year ago. Understandably, it’s been full on execution-mode from day one.

And being back in an environment where the sole focus was opening up and playing with ideas was rewarding. And useful.

I hadn’t realised it, but I needed that. I have work to do that could easily be dealt with in a hands-on, bit-by-bit, executional way. Thanks to these guys talking about the bigger picture themes and issues in their world, I’ve now been reminded that getting back to the core of a problem, back to the underlying big ideas, is vital.

Looking forward to the next one. Thanks to Neil for the invite and Google and speakers for a great evening.

Balance

Balance is interesting.

I watch my kids in the skatepark, and the older and younger kids and adults too. Flexing, swaying, tilting; it’s all about balance. There was an adult guy today, he had the basics but he just looked so stiff every time he came to land something. Too rigid to balance. And a tiny kid the day before – 4 maybe 5, seemed to be stuck to his board, so flexible were his joints. At times he would be lying horizontal after an attempt – like he was superglued to the skateboard. He was probably too flexible!

I see it at work too, in teams and in myself. Keeping balance in the priority list. Being balanced in ones reaction. In energy levels and health – burn outs before holidays, bounce restored at the return to work. Crashes at weekends. But also the bigger balancing act – rigour and process balanced with agility and instinct, risk and flair balanced with consensus and thought. And across functions – the interplay between marketing and sales, finance and HR, support and product. Planning vs execution. Most of this happens around us. We’re part of it but it’s part of something much bigger.

All of these things are in tension, are interconnected, pull at one another. Balance isn’t static, I don’t think it’s an achievable or even desirable state. It’s a promise, at best a momentary flicker in time. The plane is never on course, it’s just always nearly on course.

(Aside: probably the most incredible masters of balance I’ve seen have been working mothers. They’ll tell you what an exhausting never-ending pursuit ‘balance’ is).

My current challenge with balance is around short-term vs long-term. We usually take the long view in my team but it’s coming to the year end and I’m desperately keen for the team’s short-term results to give us the proud finish we deserve after the year of effort, growth and achievement. So there are I am, consciously and deliberately chucking balance out the window, and instead relentlessly chasing the short-term.

I’ve also seen balance in our company.

I’ve seen us sway and tilt, learning to land tricky new shifts. It’s just as hard as any other kind of balancing act. Sometimes the changes feel like sine waves – a rise in chaos and ambiguity, the smell of entrepreneurial cordite in the air, and then a counter-wave, a tranche of new process and accountability, as the company lurches back to a more sober state, for a while…

The thing is, we need it all. It’s all right. And it’s all about balance. About how much and when and where. Its about forever tweaking dials. It’s like cooking or conversation or music or – most of all – nature, of course. It’s the growth that follows a forest fire. The art that follows a recession.

I love all of this, I have to confess.
I love the dynamism. I love the lack of knowability. And the bloody challenge.

And as for what to do, I think this is the best advice I’ve found in recent times, from Gianpiero Petriglieri:

https://twitter.com/gpetriglieri/status/538371971009245184

Here’s to balance. Shout when you find it.

Shanghai

Haze
Concrete.
Taxi driver just undercut a police car at speed while switching lanes.
Racing along a suspended highway and slowly realising the grey modern megaliths of the city skyline have encircled us and suddenly we’re entrapped, caught right where they want us, in their metropolitan maw.

I’ve just come back from a wonderful, maybe even life-changing, 3 and a bit days in Shanghai. My first trip to China. I wrote those notes from the taxi, groggy, having just left the airport, nailing it down the Chinese highway.

And now looking back these are the themes I want to remember from the experience.

Innovation

I had approached with the naive arrogant assumptions of a Westerner used to being at the centre of the world. I expected big web properties, but just with different names. I expected a sweet, developing marketing and digital community, behind but finding its way. I expected to feel knowing and confident, superior even.

What I found was a digital and business landscape moving so rapidly that even though 15 or so local veterans we met and spoke to are struggling to keep up with, even with their resources, their knowledge, their inside relationships and on the ground. I felt inspired, dizzied, shaken and admiring.

It feels like there are major iterations to the digital topology every 6-12 months. ‘Weibo is dead!’ we were told over and again. ‘I go there now and again just to check what’s happening’ one of the guys we met told us. Right now the momentum is particularly with WeChat, a closed, timeline-driven social network owned by TenCent, Sina Weibo’s major competitor. Brands are struggling to figure out what to do and we found the Shanghai agencies and social data players equally perplexed.

This market has been moving much faster than the Western market has. And we were speaking with smart digital veterans – people from companies like Ogilvy, JWT, We Are Social, Porter Novelli, OMD, as well as local outfits like NIM Digital and CIC.

In fact, just as we’d got our head around WeChat being the platform where the action is happening, we were told that mobile app vertical communities feel like the next big thing.

Chatting about the local talent market we heard a phrase that resonated: ‘talent isn’t loyal – life is moving too fast here’. Kinda sums up the speed and spirit of Shanghai.

Exhilarating.

IMG_1770

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Difference

Other differences that stood out:

  • Not being able to access any of my most visited websites: Google, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Map, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (after a while I found I could through my phone but it was sketchy), Wikipedia – at one point I asked a colleague to cut and paste the Wikipedia entry for Shanghai into an email. Using Word again felt so quaint!
  • Smoking – everywhere smelt of cigarette smoke, people smoke profusely in the hotel bar, the restaurants, cars, whatever, wherever.
  • Volume – an animated conversation sounded to me like a shouting match. I quite like that.
  • Bamboo scaffolding – love it.
  • No tipping – that felt odd, coming from the USA. It’s not banned or anything, but it’s just not the custom.

IMG_1782

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Similarity

Whilst Shanghai bustles with the noisy car-horns and weaving scooters and speeding taxis, it also feels very distinct from the outright chaos of say Delhi or Bangkok.

A high percentage of the cars on the road are recognisable global brands – like 80%. And many were Audi, VW, Porsche, Mini, BMW. Quite a jolt, actually. Yes, that’s Shanghai – a wealthy bubble. But even so.

We walked to our first appointment on the second day, 35 minutes through a particularly smoggy morning. And what struck us as we did was how European it felt – like Barclona with wide boulevards lined with short Palm trees, neatly manicured gardens and small public parks with bamboo-shrouded paths and trimmed bushes. And the gawky sci-fi elevated walkway network high above the traffic had sweet, simple hanging plant boxes tracked along its edges.

The streets were cleaner than NYC, although there were patches of sewage-y smelling areas.

Perhaps its the European and international history of the place. Perhaps its the modern pace of innovation and concentration of wealth. But Shanghai doesn’t feel alien or altogether different. It feels like a place of fusion.

A real global city.

IMG_1801

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People

The Chinese people we met were open, smart, knowledgeable, interested, savvy. I expected smart but I didn’t expect the transparency, the humour and the generosity we experienced. Preconceptions. Stereotypes.

And in particular the generosity. Our colleague Xinglong was met at the airport but his best friend’s best friend – someone he’d never met before. This friend Edward then drove us around from appointment to appointment for the next two days in his fancy BMW. Utterly humble (he is a successful entrepreneur with a digital business in North America). We were told, ‘it’s the Chinese way’.

The people we met were great. Very impressive.

Shanghai. What a place.

IMG_1830

Developing people

Developing people is probably the single most satisfying thing I have been part of in my working life.

I know that have helped some people to substantially develop themselves and I have helped other people move forward a bit. And there are people that I haven’t really helped at all, too – people I didn’t click with, people I didn’t prioritise and people who didn’t seem to want to or were stuck.

At Brandwatch I think I’ve focused mainly on ‘results first’ in the past year, on outcomes, and I’ve tried to nudge people and stretch them in ways that they could in order for us to better accomplish our goals. It’s been a secondary goal.

In this second year I want to flip that around and put developing people first and foremost. I know if we can do that together – really grow and enable and unlock their creativity and drive – that the results will continue to flow.

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that the people who I’ve been able to help the most tended to behave in a particular way. They shared attributes or desires, even though they were all very different characters.

1. Want it

They all wanted to develop. And were prepared to take risks, expose themselves, try harder than just showing up for another day. It’s so bloody simple, but they wanted it. Most people I find can tick this box off.

2. Make it happen

They all made stuff happen – they took overall responsibility for their growth. They bought and read books, they updated their plan, they took the steps and volunteered for the projects and pushed their development to happen. They definitely were not sat back. There’s a big drop off from people who want it and people who are prepared to make it happen. The knowing-doing gap.

That’s it…

Pretty simple. So all we need to do as managers is unlock in people the desire to develop themselves and then the habits and commitment to follow through on those desires.

Unfortunately, that skips over two fairly big blocks.

1. It’s bloody hard to *make* someone want to develop, if they don’t already

2. It’s fairly hard to change behaviour in order to develop as an individual (in oneself or in others)

Maybe we could noodle on those two another time 🙂

Blogs and newsletters I value

Every once in a while I get asked for a list of good blogs to read (for people interested in the stuff I am interested in, I assume).

I’m putting them here as an easy place to point people to and, y’know, to share.

  • Fred Wilson’s blog – he’s a VC and writes about tech, life, business, investments, food, all sorts
  • Umair Haque – for the bigger picture. Legend.
  • Dave Trott, storytelling advertising bloke – smart witty blogs on advertising and life.
  • Alexander Kjerulf, my friend Alex sharing brilliant important items on happiness at work
  • Maria Popova Brainpicker – she’s good on Twitter and I think blogging too
  • Stowe Boyd is excellent (and a great guy in real life, too)
  • Kathy Sierra is very cool – she’s clever and different
  • danah boyd / zephoria is incredibly interesting, pretty into identity, privacy, digital culture
  • Neil Perkin’s Only Dead Fish weekly email newsletter is excellent for marketing fodder
  • For mobile stuff, Benedict Evans’ email newsletter
  • Velocity Partners – great for content and B2B marketing
  • John Willshire – thinks differently, good occasional blog posts
  • Susan Etlinger analyst at Altimeter Group is a smart, brilliant person – worth paying attention to
  • Global Guerillas – pretty different to these, about global resilience but fascinating

(Important aside: I’m noticing there are few women on my list, I dislike that.)

Do shout if something really good is missing.