Slideshow Five Habits of Data-Driven People

  • September 18 2014, 2:44pm EDT
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Five Habits of Data-Driven People

We all know that using data to make decisions is better than relying on assumptions and opinions. But we also know that exercise is better for us than kicking back with a stiff drink and watching television. Is that knowledge enough to make us choose exercise? Not usually -- unless we make a conscious effort to work it into our daily lives. People who exercise regularly tend to adopt habits such as putting their running shoes next to their bed or always working out at the same time, and data-driven people do the same thing. Here are five habits common among data-driven people.

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1. They are always asking questions

The world is filled with experts and thought leaders claiming to have the answers, but data-driven people don’t tend to be in that crowd. Instead, data-driven people make a habit of asking questions. Not only do they ask lots of questions, but they also ask good questions.

History is filled with data people who solved interesting problems because of their ability to ask questions others didn’t even think of asking. Albert Einstein had questions about what would happen if you were in an elevator in space, and that led to the theory of relativity. George Washington Carver invented crop rotation and then, upon questioning what to do with the new-found overabundance of peanuts, came up with 300 uses for the crop. They never could have encountered these solutions if they hadn’t first come up with interesting, novel questions.

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2. They cultivate an awareness of the human brain’s natural tendencies

Most of us pride ourselves on sound judgment and unbiased thoughts, but an abundance of evidence reveals our natural inclination toward irrationality. Data-driven people aren’t less susceptible to irrationality, but they do make a habit of building awareness of the many ways their brain tends to trip them up.

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3. They fight analysis paralysis

Analysis paralysis “describes a situation where the opportunity cost of decision analysis exceeds the benefits that could be gained by enacting some decision.” Data-driven people avoid this by asking the following questions:

Can we reverse the decision if it turns out wrong? If so, you may do better with a quick decision and measuring the outcomes to see if you should change course.

Is it worth my time? We can’t reverse the decision of what ice cream flavor we choose, but does it really matter? There may be an optimal solution out there, but before you fire up a spreadsheet and outline the merits of vanilla versus mint chocolate chip, stop. An optimal decision here isn’t worth it.

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4. They pursue intellectual honesty

Intellectual honesty is “an applied method of problem solving, characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude.” Data-driven people pursue this relentlessly. People who are intellectually honest aren’t out to find evidence for an assumption, or convince someone to share their opinion. They’re obsessed with finding the Right answer -- that’s Right with a capital R-- even if the Right answer ends up being one that proves their hypothesis wrong.

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5. They test and measure

Recently a developer was thinking around the characteristics of data-driven people. He was particularly focused on how mental biases get in the way of reason. His interest was piqued by the serial position effect, the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst. But instead of just assuming that the theory was correct, he tested it by recreating the experiment and asking 12 co-workers to participate. Then he analyzed the answers, and the results closely matched those predicted by the serial position effect.

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Special thanks to Jake Stein for the content of this slide show.

Jake Stein is the founder and COO of RJ Metrics. He graduated from Wharton and heads up sales, support, and new customer implementations. He started a landscaping business in high school and was the 44th ranked table tennis player under 21 in New Jersey. He once got a ride to lunch from Warren Buffett.