Slaying Unicorns and Taming Hippos

Posted on Posted in We Think, What Do You Think?

To date, this series on data has been very conceptual and theoretical. Today’s post will be a bit of a pivot towards a much more practical look at data literacy and becoming a more data driven organization.


Interested? Let’s dive right in!


We have previously written about the value of engaging end users and other partners with the data to validate, learn and inform potential next steps here. We have also written about the multiplicity of truths with respect to data here. Building off these posts, we will examine two different situations where your data literacy skills can help to inform investments and project.


To set the stage for this post, let us take a moment for an anthropological detour into the office ecosystem and the wildlife that occupy this space.


First up, the unicorn archetype. Although widely written about as a mythical creature, they are frequent unicorn reports and sightings across the private sector, the non-profit sector and all levels of government.

A donkey with a plunger affixed to its head pretending to be a unicorn

Despite a flurry of reports and sightings, further investigation all too often leads to a donkey with a plunger attached to its forehead. Luckily, the plunger will serve some value later on in the program or project lifecycle!


The second archetype we will address today is the HIPPO or the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HIPPO). Unlike the unicorn, the HIPPO is a very real creature with a penchant for board and conference rooms and the highest positions on any org chart. Unlike actual hippopotamus, the HIPPOs numbers are not dwindling or under threat of extinction. The HIPPO is a thriving entity.


All joking aside, what do unicorn and HIPPOs have to do with data literacy or a data driven organization? More importantly, why should you care? Although these two archetypes provide ample opportunity for clever memes and chuckles, they are also two of the potentially biggest threats to introducing a more data driven culture!


You and all of your colleagues are gathered at an all staff meeting to discuss the budget for the coming year. With grant funding yet to be approved and the fundraising efforts becoming increasingly more competitive and uncertain, staff are told that everything is on the table and up for discussion. Oddly, a program that has been around for ages, has not changed since its inception, has inconsistent interest or participation and has never been evaluated is not on the list of programs. That, my friend, is a legitimate unicorn sighting! For unknown reasons, a program or project has immunity from discussion, scrutiny or evaluation. These programs are frequently linked with a senior staff or long serving staff member who has seen the project through from ideation to current day.


Alternatively, you have been invited to present to the senior management team with your organization. You spend weeks bending MS Excel to do exactly as you want. You lament over the type of graph to use and the ideal colour palette for maximum impact. You have your speaking notes professional copy edited. You have collected the data, created a narrative and tested the presentation with colleagues.  The big day arrives and you positively rock the presentation. Your data is pristine, your graphs are visually appealing and easily understood. The narrative lends itself to questions and you are prepared for the most fickle of details.  You complete the presentation and the Q&A section was so quiet that you are second guessing the soundtrack of crickets you found during a late night, caffeine fueled, bleary eyed editing session. Worse yet, the decision point rolls around and your data was not taken into consideration. The limited discussion includes terms such as “my gut tells me”, “yeah, but what does that really tell us”, “I feel confident in our decision / next steps, but thanks for your time”.  These excerpts are coming from the Executive Director / CEO / Highest ranking person in the room. Having career aspirations and not wanting to risk rocking the boat, no one steps in to challenge the HIPPO.


What is the best approach if you happen to encounter a unicorn or HIPPO at work? Let’s take a closer look at some possible strategies that We Think uses to move ahead with the work while maintaining relationships and careers!


Unicorn mitigation

Symptoms of unicorn sightings frequently include a lack of analysis, evaluation or feedback. They are often these enduring programs and projects that seemingly fly under the radar without much discussion. The first step with a unicorn sighting is diplomatic transparency – a unicorn cannot maintain its mythical status when it is revealed that the unicorn is in fact a donkey with a plunger duct taped to its head! How does one go about doing this? It’s time to roll up your sleeves and dive into whatever data I available and to start looking at the state of the program. What data is available about participation, costs and expenditures, how the program aligns with organizational strategic goals, etc. In other words, treat the unicorn like you would any other program or project.  Once you have compiled a data profile of the program, it is now time to start engaging users with what you have learned.  This will not only generate more date for you, but it will also contextualize the program / project based on the perceived value of the end user.  This information can be compiled and presented in a respectful manner for an open discussion.  Make no mistake, this will not be an afternoon endeavour. This effort may include entering data into a spreadsheet, cleaning and standardizing the data before going out and speaking with users.  That said, it is a valiant effort that allows all aspects of the organization to be placed on an even playing field. To learn more, check out an earlier blog post here.


HIPPO mitigation

HIPPO mitigation is an ultramarathon and not a sprint. It involves equal parts art and technical prowess with a healthy dash of curiosity and determination to see you through. The exacerbating symptoms of HIPPO culture are twofold – the HIPPO in question minimizes or dismisses any evidence and the group fails to vocalize the issue. To address the root of the issue, the minimization / dismissal of evidence, you need to understand the why behind the action. To read more about this topic, Simon Sinek wrote a book about the very topic. Is the data being rejected because of a lack of understanding? A phobia of graphs and charts? Was the data presented clearly with a narrative? Did it resonate with the audience? Is there a culture of “we have always done it this way”?


Once the why is better understood, I have to recommend a book that should be in every aspiring data ninjas library, Stephanie Evergreen’s Effective Data Visualization: The Right Chart for the Right Data.  If you aren’t ready to invest, then her blog is a great resource. Investing some coin and time into learning the best way to present data to your audience will save you time, disappointment and pain in the long run.


To address the deafening silence when a HIPPO overlooks all the data for unknown or unknowable reasons, one must be willing to embrace uncertainty and friction. Without friction, there can be no movement! Deep Democracy is a model worthy of exploration. Its approach to conflict is not to avoid or minimize the it but is precisely concerned with how conflict can be embraced as a form of friction to move a group forward. This approach can lead to changes at the cultural level, so an overnight revolution is highly unlikely.  Begin within your work team and be sure to include your manager / supervisor! As the approach becomes institutional muscle memory, these types of conversations can spread to other tables as the behaviour is no longer shocking or contrarian, but another perspective to take into account. To learn more about this approach, you will want to visit the Deep Democracy website.  


Welcome to the trenches folks! Grab a shovel because there will always be space for another set of hands. If you liked this more pragmatic approach to data literacy and data driven organizations, do me a favour and leave a comment to let me know? If you have any questions about the approaches listed above, Tweet at us or send us an email and we can chat further.

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