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Does Your Data Match the Story Your Staff is Telling?

More than once, I've sat through (and maybe even delivered a few) presentations extolling the resounding success of a project based on a quantitative data dive. Increased efficiency? Check. Getting more out of less? Check. Time savings? Check. Everyone in the room seems mildly impressed and nods their head politely while perhaps kicking one another under the table or tasting blood in their mouth from biting their tongue.


Because all it would take is a few ear-to-the-ground interviews to unravel the data's resounding success.

Anyone who has ever heard the story of Theranos and its low-talking-yet-hyperbolic founder Elizabeth Holmes knows that data can be sliced and diced to tell any story you want it to.

Data mirages can be constructed.

Of course for most people, presenting data in the most favourable light is usually a lot less sinister than what Theranos was alleged of doing.

Hey, I get it, we all want to look good. But looking good and feeling good about a new initiative are very different.

Many years ago I was tasked with helping expand a pilot that was, from all the data presented, an unabashed "success." To get a better sense of how to prepare other teams for the change, I started with qualitative research: interviewing the people affected by the pilot.

How did the people who experienced the pilot firsthand describe it?

"It's a mess," said the manager.

"It's a complete shit-show" said a worker after I noted I wouldn't be attaching any names to the comments.

Clients I interviewed certainly weren't waxing poetic about the pilot either.

I went back to the pilot lead with my interview information in hand and suggested they put a pause on future rollouts until the issues and concerns had been addressed or, at the very least, followed up on.

They didn't want to hear it. The rollout was moving forward regardless.

I was gob-smacked--especially since this rollout was critical to the business' success. Ignoring negative feedback meant mangers would be frustrated, workers would be disillusioned and clients would be angry.

Most importantly, though, the pilot lead was eroding the trust of pretty much every stakeholder involved. Every time those success metrics were touted publicly, the stakeholders' experiences were diminished.

And their belief in what was being reported?

To say they were completely cynical would be an understatement. It's not surprising that research shows a high-trust organizational culture has better productivity, outcomes and a more engaged work culture. Of course in a low-trust culture, the opposite is true which is a very precarious situation to be in if you're running an organization in a pandemic where worker shortages abound and employees are resigning in droves.

How can you build trust, engagement and project success and avoid this kind of scenario?

Acknowledge the challenges: As a leader, being transparent about struggles within a project may feel like you're exposing some vulnerability. GOOD!

What you're actually doing is showing your team you're human. This breaks down barriers and eliminates the toxic "us and them" attitude that pervades many workplaces reduces empathy and hinders hope of your workforce rallying behind a common goal. If there are struggles on the ground, you're fooling no one by glossing over them or only trumpeting successes. Instead, open up about hurdles you're facing.

Dig deeper into experiences and get to the source of these struggles....and then problem-solve TOGETHER.

Simple feedback prompts can help your team provide input in a concise, well-rounded and non-threatening way. I've found the prompts below straight-forward, constructive and helpful in staying focused on getting the information you need.

"I like..." (i.e. start with positive)

"I'm worried about..." (challenges)

"Have you considered..." (suggestions or additional thoughts)

For bigger groups, surveying key stakeholders can also provide insights into how the work your doing is working (or not).

Listen and be transparent. Not everyone is going to love everything you do or see every change or innovation as an improvement, and that's okay. But feeling heard, helps to build a culture of psychological safety which is, according to a 2021 McKinsey survey, a highly valued commodity in organizations and one only about a quarter of leaders actively demonstrate.

And remember: no matter what, perception is reality. Even if success can be MacGyver'd on paper, the narrative your stakeholders are weaving is the one people will remember.

Need help getting a new project back on track? Or want to ensure it gets off on the right foot? Contact us to see how we can help.



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