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Bob Sutton: Don't Let Data Obscure Real Humans

The old standby tells us that what gets measured, gets managed. And if you're just starting your career in management, no doubt you've been told that metrics are at the heart of what good managers do. Which is perfectly true, but not the whole story, management guru Bob Sutton reminded bosses on his blog Work Matters recently.

The Stanford professor and author of Good Boss, Bad Boss shares a story out of his book about a company's efforts to improve the financial services they offer to immigrants. Of course, the company's managers ran all the numbers, but what really gave them insight and innovative ideas was a trip into the field to develop a little empathy:

SYPartners (SYP), an innovation firm based in San Francisco and New York, worked with up-and-coming executives from a big company to develop new financial services for immigrants. The executives arrived with armloads of binders packed with data-rich PowerPoint decks -- and were excited about how well they had mastered the charts and statistics. They got nervous when SYP told them they weren't going to use that stuff, and instead, would be shadowing customers.
SYP broke the team into trios, assigned each a Spanish-speaking translator and Spanish-speaking undocumented worker, and sent them out into the Mission District in San Francisco. Each team was asked to cash a check in a bank, wire money to a Central American country at Western Union, and observe the undocumented worker do the same things. Before the observations, these executives knew from their quantitative data that these untapped customers represented a huge opportunity. But their impressions of what these customers wanted -- and would happily pay for -- were far off the mark. The shadowing, hands-on efforts, and discussions with undocumented workers provoked them to transform and broaden the offerings they suggested to their firm.... The executive who initially felt most uncomfortable about following around an illegal immigrant came away most transformed -- arguing adamantly that reams of data aren't enough, that you need to understand what your customers do and how it feels to do be them.
Sutton is one of the masters of reminding businesspeople that behind every statistic lies an actual living, breathing human, and that while numbers are the best proxy we have for delivering value, the reason businesses exist, in the end, is because they improve people's quality of life. (Though TV's Undercover Boss does a pretty good job of illustrating the role of empathy in management in an entertaining fashion too.)

Good bosses, it seems, don't lose sight of the way their work affects actual humans and remember that not everything worthwhile can be crisply measured. Seems like a sensible reminder for novice managers who might find it difficult to see the big picture through the incoming tide of numbers.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user psd, CC 2.0)