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6 ways to extract more meaning from your data

Business book club: Restoring the Soul of Business by Rishad Tobaccowala


The pandemic had the whole world scrambling to go digital.

But our human-ness is being crushed in the rush.

We love our devices, and we're drawn to data because it feels certain and it's everywhere, says growth strategist Rishad Tobaccowala, our guest author this week.

But that seductiveness is killing culture.

Rishad's book is Restoring the Soul of Business – Staying Human in the Age of Data.

He writes that an over-reliance on data means we’re in danger of losing crucial human elements of organisations.

What we're losing in our rush to digital

In our rush to love our future customers, we look to data.

While we might be better informed about what people in our networks are doing, we're less likely to know what's going on below the surface, says Rashid.

  • We communicate more often, but can go weeks without a meaningful in-person interraction.
  • Distance is the enemy of intimacy, so you might contradict and disagree with superiors less.
  • Time and cost savings come at the expense of stories and connection.
  • We're less likely to pause, reflect, and analyse information.

In such an erratic landscape, leaders today need to learn the art of rethinking. In this article, we'll look at rethinking our relationship with data.

Staying human in the age of data

Rishad, a former executive with advertising and communication giant Publicis Group, says data tells a story beyond the facts and figures, but this story is told only by teasing out the meaning.

So Rishad runs data through his 6Is framework. 

The 6Is Framework

·       Interpret the data. Don’t take it at face value. View it from multiple perspectives. Develop hypotheses, search for patterns, look for outliers.

·       Involve diverse people. Expand the group that examines the data to get richer interpretations.

·       Interconnect to larger trends and events. What does the data mean relative to emerging trends, or competitor’s behaviours? Is it suggesting any short- and long-term impacts?

·       Imagine and inspire solutions. Don’t let data set the boundaries. Is there an emerging opportunity it reveals?

·       Iterate. Is there a fresh test you might run that can produce more insightful facts and figures?

·       Investigate people’s experiences. Your employees might have experienced something applicable to the current information.

Upgrade your mental operating system

When upgrading technology, Rishad suggests we also upgrade our own mental operating systems, and those of our people. 

“When companies speak about growth, they need to move beyond financial numbers in a spreadsheet and towards the growth of the people who work for them,” he says. 

“It isn’t just about getting people to do things differently but to think and be different as well,” he says. 

Rishad is a huge advocate of learning as a means to achieve growth.

“Learning needs to be ongoing both because change is continuous and because learning requires constant practice and upgrades.”

Rishad’s 5 reasons companies should emphasise learning:

·       Learning is the most important skill employees can possess.

·       Learning telegraphs that the company is serious about transformation and improvement. It communicates that they want their people to architect minds.

·       Best practice companies have a rich array of learning experiences for their people.

·       Transformation is only possible when lots of people take lots of tiny steps in the right direction.

·       Organisations need to set aside time for their people’s mental self-improvement. They can encourage employees to escape digital routines and engage in tasks and conversations that stretch their minds.

Be the boss with the human touch

In a world of machines, people long for the human touch.

The last thing they need is a robotic boss, says Rishad.

You need:


Like U.S. research professor Brene Brown says, it's doing things like assuming others are doing the best they can.

Rishad points out good leadership is also about letting others shine….if you see a lot of bright shiny planets all around…there must be a star in their midst!

Data is critical, but too much of it too much of the time sucks the meaning and joy out of work tasks, he says.

As a former maths major he says he knows how seductive the numbers can be…..but they can diminish cultures.

Tech is nothing without talent

The worst-case scenario is that our embrace of technology may leave people in the dust.

As we become ever-reliant on data and measurement and robotics, organisations will lose the instinct to draw on experience, to take risks, to be innovative and agile, says Rishad.

People have been responsible for their companies’ success and people will be responsible for it in the future.

“Leaders do need a nudge towards this realisation,” he says. 

·       Technology is a commodity. It needs to be combined with other ingredients to create a sustainable edge.

·       Talent is a differentiator. While technology is good at detecting patterns and projecting the predictable, it’s poor at anticipating anomalies and surprises.



Beyond questioning and exploring data, organisations need to create policies and protocols for it.

Meaning naturally flows back into an environment when companies filter all the facts, figures, and other information through a human lens.

Here are some filters suggested by Rishad:

  • Determine what data is worth receiving and eliminate the rest.
  • Flag bad data. Garbage in, garbage out.
  • Ask questions data can answer, not data-driven questions. It's not how can we reduce time per customer, it's how can we improve customer satisfaction?
  • Measure judiciously. Just because you can quantify every aspect of employee performance doesn't mean that you should.

The coming months and years will see data rise to even greater heights.

The danger is that the data strategy becomes the only strategy, and everyone's focus becomes building the best algorithm and forgetting the meaning part of the equation, says Rishad.

For this reason, he says, it's time to restore the human-to-technology balance, by integrating story activities with spreadsheet ones.

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