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October 13, 2014

Five Traits of Data-Driven People

Jake Stein

You don’t need to be a data analyst to be data-driven. Over the past year as our company has grown from 30 employees to 80-plus, we’ve seen this come to life. We’ve hired sales reps, account managers, and content marketers. Some of them are data analysts, but all of them are data-driven. We’ve found that they tend to share common ways of thinking and behaving.

Here’s what I’ve learned about what makes data-driven people different:

1. They are always asking questions

Because a data-driven person knows how to find answers, there’s much less pressure on them to have all the answers upfront. This frees up mental space to focus on asking great questions. Data-driven people ask a ton of questions, and they also ask good questions. History is filled with data nerds that solved interesting problems because of their ability to ask questions others didn’t even think of asking.

Albert Einstein had some questions about what would happen if you were in an elevator in space, and that led to the theory of relativity. George Washington Carver invented crop rotation and then, upon questioning what to do with the newfound overabundance of peanuts, came up with 300 uses for the crop. They never could have encountered these solutions if they hadn’t first come up with interesting, novel questions.

2. They are aware of the human brain’s natural tendencies

Most of us pride ourselves on sound judgment and unbiased thoughts, but there’s an abundance of evidence that reveals our natural inclination toward irrationality. Data-driven people aren’t less susceptible to irrationality, but they do cultivate an awareness of the many ways their brain can trip them up.

3. They know how to fight analysis paralysis

The more data you have available to you, the greater the risk of analysis paralysis. Analysis paralysis is “an anti-pattern, the state of over-analyzing (or over-thinking) a situation so that a decision or action is never taken, in effect paralyzing the outcome.” It’s particularly dangerous when the cost of analysis exceeds the benefits of taking action.

Data-driven people avoid analysis paralysis by asking the following questions:

  • Can we reverse the decision if it turns out wrong?
  • Is it worth my time?

Sure, you could use data to make a decision about the optimal pizza ingredients. You could collect data on vegetable sourcing and pepperoni production, but it’s unlikely that the benefits derived from the data-driven action will be worth the costs of the analysis.

4. They possess a high degree of intellectual honesty

Intellectual honesty is “an applied method of problem solving, characterized by an unbiased, honest attitude.” Data-driven people pursue this relentlessly. People who are intellectually honest aren’t out to find evidence for an assumption, or convince someone to share their opinion. They’re obsessed with finding the Right answer — that’s Right with a capital “R”– even if the Right answer ends up being one that proves their hypothesis wrong.

5. They test and measure

Recently one of our developers was doing some thinking around the characteristics of data-driven people. He was particularly focused on how mental biases get in the way of reason. His interest was piqued by the serial position effect, the tendency of a person to recall the first and last items in a series best, and the middle items worst. But instead of just assuming that the theory was correct, he tested it by recreating the experiment and asking 12 coworkers to participate. Then he analyzed the answers, and the results closely matched those predicted by the serial position effect.

For many people, going the extra step to recreate the experiment would be too much bother. But data-driven people often do this type of thing. They possess a natural curiosity and a willingness to go out of their way to test and collect data.

What else?

Being data-driven isn’t about pivot tables or data science. It’s a different way of thinking. It’s one that changes the natural (lazy) tendencies of your brain. We’ve covered some of the ways that data-driven people are different, but this is by no means a comprehensive list. What are some other things you’ve noticed that sets data-driven people apart?


About the author: Jake Stein is the co-founder and COO of RJMetrics, a business intelligence company that helps businesses make smarter decisions with their data. You can find him on Twitter @jakestein.