Raise your hand if you use data to confirm your ideas!

Ok, put your hand down, people may find it strange that you’re swearing an oath with your phone or PC anyway… As good a practice as it sounds to confirm your ideas/concepts with data, let’s understand a little something about bias and how our minds work first.

Look at the lines below. Not very interesting, a couple of horizontal lines of different lengths, with some arrows pointing in or point out. The bottom line is clearly longer than the top one. Or is it?

Take out a ruler and you will find the long horizontal lines are, in fact, identical in length (this is the famous Muller-Lyer illusion). So what does this have to do with business? Although this is just an optical illusion, it’s reminder that our gut feel isn’t always so accurate. We need data (a ruler in this case) to find out the correct answer.

Confirmation bias is our desire to seek out, believe, and recall data that supports what we already believed.

Have you ever bought a new car and all of a sudden noticed that car popping up everywhere you drive? These people must want to be like you! Let me tell you though, the population of vehicles in the US is about 260 million and they’ve been on the road for over 11 years on average, you buying a car didn’t change the vehicle population overnight, your mind did. You started noticing that car because you were now seeking out what you wanted to see.

Using data to confirm your ideas or concepts isn’t a bad thing by itself. If we want to bring real results and have an impact, data is required. Without a measurement tool one could not find the real answer to the Muller-Lyer illusion. The premise of this article is not that data is bad, the premise is how we seek and interpret data can be dangerous and our minds can circumvent an otherwise noble cause (speaking with data).

So what do I do about this? Is awareness all I need to avoid the biases? In part 1 of this series, I wrote about the say-do gap (another cognitive failure we are saddled with), and although knowledge of these things are paramount to our personal growth, it does not eliminate the bias from our minds. Go back up to the top of the article, look at the lines, I bet that the bottom one still appears longer to you as it does to me.

In the 3rd part of this series, I’ll bring these two things together, Say-do gap and confirmation bias, with some suggestions on how to improve on them. One of the best ways to start improving is reflection. What stood out to you the most as you read the article? Write it down, tell a friend, or leave a comment!

Robert Darrow, MBA

Experienced Project Management Executive

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Sharing the Energy

I love Austin, Texas in the fall.  The days are warm, and the nights are cool.  The energy of the city is amazing.  I’m not talking about the great restaurants or the incredible live music. I’m talking about the energy of the people who are here.  

We moved to Austin in 2004.  At the time the metro area had about 800,000 people.  Today there are over 2 million, by most estimates.  Positive energy attracts positive people.  Success attracts success.

I moved here to work for a company that was based out of Minnesota, to run a division of their company.  After a year, we decided neither was a fit for each other.  They were good people, but our styles and expectations didn’t match.  Neither did our goals.  I wished them well, and we parted ways.  

I had an opportunity to start a business.  I had worked for 4 companies in my career, and each had ended with me leaving.  Sometimes I left on my own, sometimes I was asked to leave.  Each time we parted on good terms.  I learned something from each company, but I would get bored.  I had to break things to fix them.  I was a turnaround guy.  I loved fixing broken territories, portfolios, divisions and companies.  It was what I enjoyed, and I understood how to do it.  My love for fixing things led to a business of fixing things.  

When I started my business in 2005, I built it piece by piece.  Not always in an intentional way, but in a needed way.  I started with sales process, then added a sales strategy and sales operational consulting offering.  I then added a voice of customer segment as my clients needed us to help them define differentiation.  We added surveys and market research as needed.  We added people as needed.  But old habits die hard.  Without thinking about it, I would break the company, so I could fix it.  

Because I love fixing broken business and processes, I made my business more and more complex.  Too complex.  I added more to what we offered our clients.  They enjoyed our work, but my team fell by the wayside.  I had 8 sales people who left because they couldn’t understand or help prospects understand how we could help.  I personally sold every engagement.  That led to me also needing to be very involved in the execution of the projects.  It was not a sustainable business model.  

Over the past 2 years I’ve awakened to the fact that I have a problem.  I break things to fix them when I get bored.  I have worked to reinvent what we do.  To simplify.  To focus.  To go back to our roots and what drove me to start the business in the beginning.  I want to help create sales professionals.  

I have a good friend who is one of the brightest people I know.  He is, at 40 years old, a trusted friend and advisor to me.  I shared my initial business plan and he diplomatically told me it was too complex.  He shared that people don’t want additional information.  We have more information available to us in the past three years than all the rest of history combined.  They want answers.  I went back to the drawing board and created a different plan.  I shared it with him again.  He sent me a link to a simplified business plan.  It was still too complex.  I now am up to version 5.  I’m afraid it is still too complex.  But it has been narrowed down to a working plan that I can execute on with my team.  I’m grateful to Chad Bockius for his insistence on simplicity.  I’m still learning.  

This is the energy that I love in this city.  The energy of young executives that are focused on improving their lives and the lives of others.  There are people I started to mentor years ago that are now teaching me.  There is an optimistic vibe of Austin and an independent vibe of Texas.  It’s a wonderful combination and I’m grateful to be here and call this home.  

Do you give thought to your environment and recognize what it brings or takes away from your ability?   Do you gain energy from you do?  Do you gain energy from where you put in your work?  If not, why not change that environment?  What you do, and where you live is a choice.  It’s your choice.  Choose wisely!

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Seeing it Through our Filters

This week I was working in the field with a sales person from one of my clients.  I was my typical self in giving feedback.  The response from the sales person was interesting.  He started by saying I really appreciate feedback, but I’m not sure he really did.  He also would repeat what I had shared, then he would counter it with his own view.  He didn’t say “but”, but he didn’t have to.  It was what was playing in my mind.  

My initial thought was this individual doesn’t really want feedback and he is pushing back.  It was a little frustrating.  Then I had to take myself through my own practice.  Was it true that he was pushing back?  Was his point true?  

I was reading into his comments from my past experiences, both personally and from coaching other sales people.  I was overlaying him with those filters and making assumptions.  Were they true?  He had valid points and I needed to acknowledge them.  I had to change my language when I was coaching him so that he didn’t feel like I was criticizing him.  

It made me think of how many times in the past I had misinterpreted someone’s words because I was only hearing them through my filters and experiences.  

It happens in my personal life as well as my business life.  I hear certain words and it creates a specific reaction based on my past experiences.  Those reactions aren’t always skillful.  

I had very angry reactions to simple things that were not even directed toward me.  I have a talent preference for activation, so I have a preference for action and activity.  Slowing down and thinking, instead of just reacting has helped me realize where that is skillful and where that is not skillful.  My brother has told me in the past to slow down to speed up.  I never really understood that statement until about a year ago when I started my daily practice of journaling and meditating.  

My tagline for NineRuns™ is “Intuitive to Intentional™”.  I initially used it as a way of letting people know that we need to take the things we do well and do them intentionally.  It was a way to take the pressure off sales people in training sessions.  Now it fits a broader view for me.  It fits with taking the time to have skillful thoughts that lead to skillful actions.  All of it leads to skillful results.

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Digging deeper to find their stories…

I’ve written about my mentors before. Specifically, I’ve written about my Uncle, Carl Woods.  This past weekend, my wife and I traveled back to Kansas to see our mothers.  There were some things that I found as we were helping my mother go through some of her things that added a perspective on my uncle that touched me deeply.

I should share some background.  When I was 5 years old my father was diagnosed with a cyst in his brain.  The technology at that time made this perhaps more challenging than it would be today.  As the doctors removed his cyst, it damaged his brain.  His post-surgery symptoms were much like that of someone who had a stroke.  He had trouble speaking, and his right side was partially paralyzed.  I share this not to gain sympathy, but to add perspective as to why my uncle had such an impact in my life.  My father couldn’t really do anything physically with me.  He just wasn’t healthy.  My uncle stepped in where my father could not.  

I “worked” for my uncle as his hired man, even though I was just a boy.  He helped me learn so much about using common sense to do things.  He taught me not to panic.  It did not help the situation. He taught me to do what I said I’d do.  His word was his contract.  He was patient with me and he never lost his temper with me, even though he easily could have.  I grew up a farm kid, but I was a bit of a dreamer.  I would get lost in my thoughts and tear up farm equipment.  He would just smile and fix the equipment.  I wasn’t going to get fired.

My uncle was not big.  He was 5’ 4” tall and weighed about 140 lbs.  But he was a presence, everywhere he went.  He wasn’t a big talker.  He was a hardworking, humble man who was smart, and made people feel like they were the most important people in the room.  They, and I, came to him with problems and he had a common-sense way of solving them.

This past weekend made me nostalgic for my uncle.  My mother was a depression era baby.  She saves everything.  As we were sorting through boxes of old materials, I found newspaper clippings of a letter to the editor my uncle had written to the newspaper. He was in high school at the time and active in Future Farmers of America.  He was actively challenging the old way of thinking about farm policy, and even called out a neighbor for his past comments in a previous letter.  

My grandfather died in a farming accident with my uncle was 8 years old, during the worst economic times in the history of the United States.  There was little in the way of insurance money, and there was no social security.  At my grandfather’s death bed, my uncle promised him that he would stay with my grandmother until she remarried.  She never did.  My uncle took care of her until she died.  He had that strong of commitment to his word.  He never got into sports.  He never had the time.  He started farming at 8 years old.  He finished his education, through high school, while farming full time.

On Friday my mother handed me a box with lots of old material from when my uncle was a boy.  I saw a side of him that I didn’t even know existed.  He was an artist.  He drew some amazing pictures by hand.  He wrote creative stories.  My style is a direct reflection of his style.  He was active in student government and his local government.  He had a servant heart and displayed it by helping others.  All of this happened with the weight of taking care of his mother and sisters and farming.  

I had a very high opinion of my uncle prior to seeing his clippings in an old newspaper.  I have him on an even higher pedestal now.  

This made me realize how we miss opportunities.  When I get on an airplane, I put my headphones on so I don’t have to talk to people.  Is this a missed opportunity?  When I work with my clients, do I really get to know them?  Do I really work to understand their history, their story?  

By working to understand their story, perhaps I’ll have more empathy. Perhaps I’ll have a higher respect for their situation and come up with a better solution.  It’s a fine line to walk when we get deeper with our customers.  Some people do not want to share their story.  They feel like you can take advantage of them.  But I feel like my best work is with the people that I share my story, and they share theirs.  I feel like I give them my word, and I will do what I say I will do.  Can you improve your relationships with your customers and improve your solution for them?

My uncle is one of three mentors that have impacted my life in a very significant way.  He set a high standard for me to measure myself against.  He was such a force in my life that I named my son after him.  

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Are you a habitual liar? The answer is always no… (part 1 of 3)

If you really think about it, it would always be no. But that’s not the purpose of this article. The purpose is to share and understand what is natural to all of us, saying one thing and doing another.

Let’s define the say-do gap.

Quite simply, the say-do gap is the term given by behavioral economics to describe that what we say and what we do are often different things. By traditional economic theories, we are rational beings that are in full control and make unbiased judgement by effortlessly implementing rational decisions. Ever heard of “supply and demand”? Thought so, now take that theory into consideration, we apparently pay for things based on our expert and intimate knowledge of exactly how many widgets are in the entire world and how many of the 7 billion people may want those widgets. Bad news, we aren’t that good.

So what causes us to be this way?

A number of things, let’s look at the basics:

The planning fallacy, which basically states the one-two punch that sets us up for the say-do gap most directly. Daniel Kahneman, a world-renowned physicologist, put forward this theory that, in layman’s terms, states that we are lousy when it comes to estimating how much time something will take. To add insult to injury, we stack on an overestimation of our own abilities with a touch of underestimating just how badly we overestimate that ability.

Saying yes to everything is just a very slow no… Funny thing, the easiest people to say no to are those that are closest to us (our family and close friends) and those furthest from us (ever felt obligated to buy that long distance service from your friendly telemarketer?… thought not). Everyone in the middle becomes a challenge, just so happens everyone you work with, unless you have a family business or are in fact a telemarketer, fits the mold of saying you will but doing something else.

A majority of the time, we are on autopilot. We make thousands of decisions everyday, from as simple as where we go to as complex as many business situations present. Without habits we would completely lock up and be unable to make it through the day. So the upside of forming habits is that we can do things without putting any energy into the thought. Now take this to your desk, the day-to-day that you have made into habits in all your years of experience, now someone asks you how you do something or how long it will take. You now put thought into something you normally don’t spend any thought on (it’s a habit). What you say may not be what you actually do.

Time for some reflection.

Something I’ve run into in all the companies, departments, functional areas, or where ever I’ve throughout my career has been a frustration with why “the other guys” can’t deliver what they say! Often we forget we are all subject to these behaviors from time-to-time.

Funny story, I told a good friend of mine I was going to finish this article last week, turns out I didn’t… What’s your favorite “say-do gap story”? Share it in the comments, bonus points, make it about a failure of yours to connect!

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The Power Of Teams

I sit on a board for a foundation in my home town.  We are small foundation with an annual gala as our main fundraiser.  I’ve sat on this board for the past 5 years, and our gala has evolved from a small event at a remote facility where we had to do a tremendous amount of set up and tear down, to a larger event at a very nice hotel.  

In the past we relied on our own knowledge and common sense to get things done, as well as an individual who deeply enjoyed running the entire event.  People enjoyed the event, and we raised some money to support our cause, but it never ran smoothly.  There was always some type of calamity that we didn’t anticipate.  

This year is different.  We have enlisted people who have expertise (not experts) in running these types of events.  We are listening to our board.  We are listening to our past participants and volunteers.  We are building processes so we aren’t continuing to make the same mistakes over and over.

We won’t know how successful we are in this venture until after our event in late February of 2018, but it feels different this year.  It feels like we are fully utilizing the power of the team (board).  The people on our board are bright, successful people who live and work in the community.  They have had ideas about how we can improve for the past few years.  The ideas were never really utilized.  Now they have a voice and the creativity it amazing.  

In our business we work with teams all the time.  Sales teams are like Track and Field teams, in that the individual performance totals to a team score.  In sales teams, as in any other team, the work that is done as a group increases performance.  Giving the team a voice in what they are doing leads to better solutions and better results.  

I recently facilitated at a sales meeting for one of my clients.  The individuals on the team, truly like each other and they lean on one another.  During the session they offered ideas for solving challenges that one of their team members was facing.  They offered their opinions on improvements to product, promotion and how best to sell.  They had a voice.

I’m fortunate to be a part of the success this team has had.  They had a record year in fiscal 2017 and will have another in fiscal 2018.  They have a unique product and the company has offered some great programs, but the real differentiator for them is an exceptional sales team.  A team that is actively engaged in taking market share through educating their customers.  The teamwork that they produce is extraordinary and it shows up in the final results.  They have great leadership that listens to the sales team and listens to their customers.  

The power in teams is something great leaders seek, and average leaders fear.  Facilitating meetings and gaining insight from our clients has been educational for our team.  It helps us remain relevant in the industry and it has helped me grow personally.  

While our foundation has a board, it really has a team of people focused on raising money for a worthy cause and that is powerful.  There truly is power in teams.

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Developing Your Expertise

The term expert is used a lot these days.  We have experts on sports, we have experts on politics, we have experts on everything.  What makes an expert?

Why do we give up our power to others who declare themselves experts?

When someone considers themselves an expert, do they have too much ego?  Is there a correlation between expertise (not experts) and humility?

I’ve been involved with my business for 12 years.  I’ve been in a sales and leadership roles for over 30 years.  Does that make me an expert?  I have expertise, but it’s not from just experience.  It’s from continuing to learn. 

I coach a brilliant young man with great expertise in project management.  I learn from him every day.  I am fortunate to learn about his processes and knowledge and add them into mine.

I met with another bright young business owner yesterday who has started a company from scratch and is now working through a buyout.  He is very thoughtful.  He understands selling, and he understands how software can support his sales team’s efforts for development and performance.  I saw software he has developed and it is amazing.  I learned from him. 

Do these two individuals have my experience?  Are they experts?  They have expertise in areas I don’t.  They have skills I don’t have.  Expertise comes from the ability to learn and to continue to learn. 

I used to watch Sunday morning analysis of the NFL games.  One day I realized that while the individuals offering their opinions had done research and were sharing their knowledge, it didn’t have any affect on the outcome of the game. 

I was watching a 24-hour news channel when I was having dinner on a layover in Nashville.  I was in the restaurant for about an hour.  In that time frame the news channel had 4 separate panels of experts to discuss a breaking news story that turned out to be nothing more than moment in time.  The experts shared the gloom and doom scenario of what could happen.  It did not. 

What is it that drives us to listen to experts instead of making our own decisions?  Why do we allow others to influence us, instead of developing our own expertise? 

I believe some of our reasoning is pure entertainment.  I also believe we are trying to take shortcuts. We are more focused on results than we are taking the time to do the work to understand what we are trying to accomplish.

I believe the people who are successful in business today are taking the time to be thoughtful in their work.  They understand what problem they are solving and they cut the fluff out and solve the problem. 

I met with a friend who asked me what problem I’m solving with a new offering.  It made me think through it.  I asked my client base what they valued in the offering.  It made me realize I had offered something that created more work, based on someone else’s view.  I had allowed them to be “experts” based on some bad information. 

Just because I’m aware of this bias, it doesn’t make me immune to it.  If I take the time and do the work, I can overcome my need to take shortcuts.  I can develop expertise by being aware of those around me that can share their knowledge and experience without me giving up my power of controlling my own behavior. 

Are you developing your expertise?  Are you giving up your power to experts? 

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The Value of Serving Others

There is a certain type of randomness to a consulting practice.  Rarely is there a retainer that lasts for more than a year and the majority of time there is nothing but project work.  While there are great benefits to having a practice, there is also the downsides.  You never really get the benefit of seeing the end of your work.  You have accountability, but no authority.  You work from project to project, and when money gets tight, you are typically on the cut list.  I have no issue with that.  Most of my engagements last a few years of project work, and then we all move on.  My joy comes from two things; seeing the light come on in the eyes of someone I’m working with, as an individual, and secondly, seeing the company putting into practice the processes you developed with them, then having the processes become such a way of life for them that they don’t need you anymore.  

You have to have a servant heart and mind to survive in a consulting world.  You also need to have a very thick skin.  Rejection comes often and with force.  Depending on your practice, you will be a threat to someone in the organization.  For us, some managers can see us as a threat.  Egos play a huge part in our ability to win or lose deals.  It’s critical to hold true to your purpose and core values.  It’s critical to know why you are doing what you are doing and what your end goal is.  Otherwise you can drift.  I’m sure that is the same in any business.

I started my career with a welding supply company in Salina, KS.  I had no real motivation to sell welding supplies and no real skill in welding.  I was working at a gas station, while trying to make it as a radio DJ.  I was getting married in September of that year.  It was over 100 degrees and I was mowing the grass at the gas station when a family friend who was the sales manager of the welding supply drove up in his air conditioned pickup truck and asked me what I was doing.  When I explained my situation, he asked if I wanted to sell welding supplies.  I shared that I didn’t know anything about them.  He told me it was inside, and air conditioned.  Three weeks later I was selling welding supplies.

I had no idea what a blessing that decision was at the time.  I had just accepted a sales job.  That turned out to be the basis for a wonderful life.  I had also just accepted a role, working for the greatest boss I would ever have in my career.  Dale McCormick (Mac) was unlike anyone I had ever known.  He was smart, funny, confident, and I would have charged a beach for him.  He was tough when he needed to be, but he was caring and nurturing when I needed it.  He was my boss, my friend, and a little like a father to me.  

Mac taught me to pay attention.  He taught me to listen and to find opportunities to help people solve problems.  He taught me the value of serving other people.  Mac was no angel, but he was and always will be a guiding force in my life.  While there isn’t a conscious stream of thinking about what Mac would do, he helped plant the seeds that are what drives me today.  I use that as my “wins” in working with our clients today.

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Truth Through Our Filters

I was having dinner with a friend and I was telling her about sending a blog to my mother, and her response.  My mother was very pleased that I wrote about her.  However, she said some things were not exactly accurate.  My friend asked what wasn’t accurate, and I shared that it didn’t matter.  I hadn’t even asked.  

Why didn’t I ask?  Because it is my recollection of what had happened.  Accuracy is based on who’s story it is and how they saw it through their filters.  Whether it’s business or personal, there is only truth in what the individual sees as the truth.  

We work with our clients on differentiation.  I always share that it’s only a differentiator is the customer believes it’s a differentiator.  That is why we spend so much time interviewing and asking customers their opinion.  Our differentiators are just a menu from which our customers can select what’s relevant to them.  

Sometimes we get caught up in our own marketing.  We believe we are the best at something, just because we say we are.  One company I worked for published a list of 20 things that made us better than others.  One of my sales people proceeded to read the list to the GM of a single plant that was 3 blocks from our branch.  As the sales person worked down the list, the GM was getting glassy-eyed.  Nothing was relevant to him.  But my sales person continued down the path, because he was hoping something would stick.  At about item number 11, something stuck.  He shared the total number of branches our company had nationwide.  The GM was awakened from the glazed slumber he was falling into.  He asked the sales person if the number of branch stores was accurate, to which the now excited sales person responded, “Yes!”.  The GM then stated, “I only use the branch that is 3 blocks away, am I paying for the overhead of the other 300 plus stores?”  There is danger is assuming and telling, versus asking questions and learning.

Malcom Gladwell in his book “Tipping Point” talks about shared memories.  Family members can see the same event and remember specifics about that event very differently.  The whole family can remember things that complete the entire story.  By being in a family or group, we can recreate the story more accurately than if we try individually.  There is a huge benefit from teamwork.  

There is a focus in business, on creating teams to work on projects.  There is also a focus on diversity within those teams.  Diversity is not just ethnic, or social, it’s also diversity of thought.  But what happens if the diverse team is dominated by one individual?

I was a part of a team of 10 leaders in a company I worked for.  Nine of us were very extraverted.  One was an introvert.  I’m not referring to the social context of outgoing versus shy.  I’m talking about how someone thinks and gains energy.  We did a group exercise where we were paired off to discuss a topic.  I was fortunate enough to be paired with my friend who was an introvert.  The noise in the room was too great for him to concentrate, so we had to leave the room and sit in a cubicle to do the work.  He was satisfied because it was quiet outside of the room.  The silence had the reverse effect on me.  I need interaction to think.  I think by expressing my views vocally.  Every time someone walked by the cubicle, I had to see who it was and what they were doing.  My friend was at peace.  Silence with very slight interruptions broke my focus.

Diversity includes all manner of different ways to connect and think, and speak.  If my introverted friend was in group setting, he was very reserved in sharing his input.  One on one he was very gifted and dynamic.  His view was very different from mine and very valuable.  He saw and interpreted information differently that I did.   

The question is who has the right answer.  In my view it’s all of us, working in collaboration.  That’s very difficult for me to say that, because my aptitude and attitude says I have the best answers.  It’s a skill I’ve had to learn.  

My mother believes that I’m a little off in some of my recollections, and she is probably correct, from her view.  But combining my memories with hers gives us a more fully rounded picture of the accepted truth of what happened.  Someday soon, I’ll ask her where I was off, and she will correct me.  She has to, because she is my mother and I’m still her little boy…  But we all know I’m right.

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