A Super Scary Halloween Story for Data Scientists and other Change Agents


As the mist swirled and parted, the Seer suddenly appeared before me. He was barely recognizable as human. His skin was deeply etched from a hundred winters spent roaming the barren peaks and crags of Mount Olympus. He regarded me with his one good eye, and croaked words that chilled the air around us… “Hey, wassup? What can I do you for? And make it snappy, ’cause I’ve got baklava in the oven. You know how easy it is to burn baklava?”

“Oh, Seer, I’ve come a long way to ask you something that’s been troubling my soul for a very long time. I’ve been involved in many projects where a centralized Data Science team tries to help internal customers from a business unit leverage analytics in some way. I’ve seen mixed results. What’s the secret to a successful analytics engagement with internal business customers? How can I get them to cooperate with me, to take my findings seriously, and above all to actually implement changes to business processes based on my findings?

The Seer smiled. Or was it a sneer? “Can you handle the truth?” he said.

That sounded vaguely familiar… “Didn’t Jack Nicholson say that in…”

“Jack got it from me!” the Seer snapped. “Can you handle the truth?”

“I… think so…”, I sputtered. “Yes! Give it to me straight!”

The contempt-o-meter

“Here’s the thing.” said the Seer, sniffing the air for the slightest hint of burning baklava. “As soon as you start having feelings of contempt for your internal customers – let’s call them your clients for short – you’re done. Cash in your chips. Go home. It’s over. Humans are exquisitely fine-tuned to sense the feelings of others. It’s simply impossible to hide your feelings of contempt from your clients. And nobody wants to work with some pretentious jackass who they sense is always looking down on them .”

“Well, no problem there!” I preened. “I pride myself on always being professional and respectful towards my clients.”

Oh, really?” he said, his smile-sneer growing wider.

“Clients can sense how you feel about them. Ever sat in a meeting with your clients, and thought to yourself that you’re surrounded by mouth breathing knuckle draggers?”

“Well… ”

“They can sense how you feel about them. Ever complained to your colleagues about how woefully misguided your clients are?”

“I…. ”

“They can sense how you feel about them. Ever… ”

“Okay, okay, I get it. I can see how thinking about my clients like that is not going to win me their cooperation or help me be an effective Data Scientist, which is all about changing a company’s behavior in some way, whether big or small. But exactly how can I silence my judgmental internal dialog?”

First things first

“Build empathy for your clients. Empathy… A good, solid Greek word if there ever was one. And empathy in the context of cross-organizational relationships is not about moral virtue. It’s about getting things done that are good for the business, and good for your career at the same time. Oh, and you can’t fake empathy. The contempt radar that I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it also detects insincerity.”

A piece of the Seer’s ear fell off, but it didn’t seem to bother him.

“But before we get into my specific advice for increasing your empathy for internal customers,” he said, “you have to be honest with yourself. Do you really giving a rat’s ass about their happiness? Really? If yes, then continue. If not, then go back to raising your goats, or practicing your lute, or weaving your baskets from found human hair to sell on Etsy. Building empathy is very hard work. But it’s also the only path I’ve found to delivering happiness to internal customers, which turns out to be the golden road to effectiveness as you’ve defined it. So, do you have a heartfelt desire to make your clients happy?”

I nodded.

You’re wrong. You’re just wrong.

“What if I told you that everything you know is a lie?” quizzed the Seer. I was expecting him to launch into the whole red-pill blue-pill thing, but he skipped it.

“Your contempt for your internal customer is built on your perceptions. You think you know all about your client. But your mind is endlessly filling-in knowledge gaps with fantasy. Your mind constructs your perceptions out of teensy bits of reality plus huge doses of stereotypes and random gastric disturbances. Think about how often in the past you’ve misread people and situations, and you’ll realize that much of what you think you know about your client is probably just plain wrong.”

Beginner’s mind

The Seer took another whiff of air, like an Irish Setter on the scent.

“Here’s one idea for cultivating authentic empathy. Two mountains over there are these Buddhists. They’re an absolute riot at my fondue parties, by the way… Anyhow, they talk about the importance of having a beginner’s mind. It means that, regardless of how many decades you’ve been practicing meditation, you should approach each new meditation session as if it were your first time meditating. You should approach it with anticipation, curiosity, and an openness to being surprised.”

“What if you took the same kind of approach to your internal customers?”

On not peeing into the wind

“For example: What if you took them to lunch, and asked them questions that helped you to deeply understand what makes them tick at work:

1) What brings them joy in their job?
2) What brings them dread?
3) What are their career aspirations?
4) What makes their boss praise them?
5) What makes their boss yell at them?
6) What must they do to achieve their job goals (and hence their bonus)?

“You were expecting project-related questions, right?” the Seer sneer-smiled.

“The truth is, nobody gives a sh*t about your equations and graphs, per se. But they deeply give a sh*t about how your equations and graphs might impact them along those personal dimensions, both positively and negatively. They’ll never say so, but they do. They might not even consciously realize it, but they do.”

“So, what I’m saying is, as you think about how you are going to get your Brilliant Data Science Idea implemented, deconstruct those personal dimensions of your clients, and then explain the benefits of your Brilliant Data Science Idea to them in ways that address those personal dimensions.”

“But isn’t that manipulative?, you ask. Only if it’s done with malice, I answer.”

“Here’s an analogy. You are out sailing on the wine dark sea, and you want to get your little boat from point A to point B, because you’ve heard that the feta is amazing at point B. Isn’t it wise to consider where the winds are blowing, and where the shoals are lurking, and to get aligned with the great forces of nature, rather than be willfully ignorant of them?  Isn’t it better to leverage those forces, rather than to fight them? Where is the manipulation and malice in that?”

“Look, I don’t expect you to just take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Experiment with it. Play with it. Then come back and tell me how it went.”

Baklava’s done

The sweet smell of freshly baked baklava was now competing with the Seer’s formidable stench. “I love the smell of baklava in the morning!” said the Seer.

“Thanks for the advice,” I said. But it sounds like very hard work. Interpersonal skills… Change management strategies…. These are not exactly part of the standard Data Science repertoire.”

“True dat,” said the Seer, winking at me with his one good eye.

“But luckily you don’t have to be perfect at it. Because you know what they say… In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is…”

“… king!” I answered.

And with that, the Seer was gone.

Please feel free to contact me via LinkedIn

Source: A Super Scary Halloween Story for Data Scientists and other Change Agents by groumeliotis

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