Better Decisions and Communication

What can you learn about leading a business from Edward Tufte, information communication expert?

I recently had the pleasure of attending Dr. Edward R. Tufte’s course in Presenting Data and Information. Dr. Tufte is one of my favorite authors and thinkers. His thoughts on communicating complex information for learning and decision-making have been a strong influence on me. His books are ground-breaking, thought-provoking, passionate and beautiful, besides. Small wonder the New York Times called him “The da Vinci of Data.”

Beautiful Evidence, by Edward Tufte

Like most good teachers and innovators, he’s not afraid to be blunt and controversial. See for example, his views on the causes of the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia disasters, and his feedback to the team that developed Sun Microsystems’ AnswerBook. Or for the ultimate slam, his view on PowerPoint:

To deal with a product that clutters and corrupts data with such systematic intensity must require an enormous insulation from statistical reasoning by Microsoft [PowerPoint] executives and programmers, PP textbook writers, and presenters of such chartjunk.

Dr. Tufte’s course was a great learning experience, and prompted a lot of thinking about how to improve communication and decision-making in organizations. This is a crucial issue, given the great challenges facing many businesses today. Here are some lessons for better decision-making, drawn from Dr. Tufte, others, and my experience:

  • Decision-making is doomed unless you focus on the right question. It is common to drift into answering a different question which is less embarassing or contentious, or about which we have better information. While this may make the audience more comfortable, it’s pointless. “Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.” – John W. Tukey
  • Good decisions emerge out of vigorous and probing discussion and debate. There is no substitute for exploring issues deeply and vigorously. One contributor to this discussion on Tufte’s online forum says, “Ask the right question. In the typical case you don’t know which is [the] right question, so ask lots of questions.”
  • Structure the discussion so that the best thinking has time and opportunity to emerge. Beware in particular the rush to conclusion and the tendency of fast talkers to run over others whose points of view may be no less valid, just slower to be articulated. As Tufte observes,

    One’s inability to produce the devastating comeback live during the course of discussion– l’esprit de l’escalier–is why it is helpful, in deciding serious matters (1) to have the material under discussion distributed in advance, (2) to rehearse the possible exchange in advance, (3) to take a time-out, leave the meeting, escape the groupthink and bullying, go for a long walk down the hall (or up the stairs in the French version of after-the-fact-wit), and ask yourself “What would Richard Feynman do?”

  • Discussions must be structured to encourage conversation. This has particularly strong implications for presentation format. It’s tough to have a real dialog if someone is standing at the front of the room working the slide projector with the lights turned down. Alternative approaches, such as the use of handouts, flipcharts, whiteboards, or posters may be more effective. See for example this discussion on one of Tufte’s online discussion forums: “slide presentations are monologues (sometimes brilliant ones, to be sure); poster presentations are conversations. “
  • Decision-making is error-prone unless it is built on hypotheses about cause and effect. Without this, there is great danger of “paralysis by analysis,” or of simply wandering around until the group settles on a course of action more out of fatigue than careful judgment. Along with hypothesis-oriented discussion, the group must look for contradictory evidence as well as supporting evidence. A good introduction to hypothesis-oriented communication is Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle.
  • Strategic stories are a powerful tool for synthesis and reasoning. As the excellent Harvard Business Review article Strategic Stories: How 3M Is Rewriting Business Planning points out,

    A good story (and a good strategic plan) defines relationships, a sequence of events, cause and effect, and a priority among items — and those elements are likely to be remembered as a complex whole. [italics are the authors’]

  • Good decision-makers immerse themselves in the details. All too often, the tendency is to simplify information. Yet, as Tufte notes, “popular news sites on the internet show 10 to 15 times more information than a large and diverse collection of [PowerPoint]-formatted images”. The same holds true of many other forms of public media. Are we somehow smarter when we surf the web, read the sports pages, or review stock performance than we are when we make crucial decisions on the job?
  • Apply the principles of effective analytic presentations. Tufte identifies six principles in his book Beautiful Evidence:
    1. Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.
    2. Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systematic structure.
    3. Show multivariate data; that is, show more than 1 or 2 variables.
    4. Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
    5. Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues.
    6. Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content.
  • Use checklists where appropriate. These are an excellent way of making sure that no important information or step in the process is missed. That’s the reason why checklists are common in critical situations like surgery and aviation.
  • Use effective visuals. Tufte points out that we have strongly developed visual skills, yet we often don’t apply them effectively to business decision-making. Avoid the pitfalls of useless decoration and “chartjunk”, distorted or mis-scaled graphs, thin data and sparse graphics, and “cartooning.” Focus instead on providing lots of rich information for your audience to dig into, in as simple, straightforward a format as possible. As much as possible show all the relevant data side-by-side and all at once, rather than piece-meal, chart by chart. This facilitates comparison, discussion, synthesis and understanding. Above all, don’t underestimate the audience. They are capable of understanding massive amounts of information, if presented with care. Tufte observes, “Clutter and confusion are not attributes of information; they are failures of design.” (For much more on this subject, see Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
  • Don’t use PowerPoint for decision-making. PowerPoint has very severe drawbacks for the presentation of complex information, as Tufte points out his pamphlet The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Among these drawbacks are a tendency to thin out the evidence and present it slowly and in very small pieces, a rigidly linear structure with many levels of hierarchy, a tendency to turn discussions into monologues controlled by the presenter, emphasis on format over content, and a predominance of chartjunk and what Tufte calls “Phluff” (PowerPoint Fluff™). It may work for sales presentations, but it’s disastrous for communicating and understanding complex information. For a hilarious illustration of how badly PowerPoint can mangle up communications, see Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address.
  • Use multiple sources of data. As Tufte says, use “whatever it takes to understand something”
  • Beware of filtering or cherry-picking information. Good decisions can’t be made reliably on bad or incomplete data, yet many businesses struggle with presenting “bad news” or contrary evidence. As it says in Tufte’s forum discussions, “The upshot is that you must have a culture of facing the facts, whatever they may be, and actively engage colleagues and employees in voicing dissent. Jim Collins refers to the Stockdale Paradox (confront the brutal facts and retain faith that you will prevail)…” In addition, you should be vigilant in the review and evaluation of evidence. Tufte says, “One should be immediately skeptical of presentations that lack adequate sourcing or presentations that contain only tendentious or highly selected, cherry-picked sources. Evidence selection is the single biggest threat to the credibility of a report. ” It may be necessary to take additional steps to encourage the sharing of uncomfortable information. For examples on how to do this, see Christina Bielaszka-Duvernay’s blog post for the Harvard Business Review, How to get the bad news you need.
  • Don’t confuse looking at the past for predicting the future. Predictions are very unreliable unless they are based on a model of the underlying cause and effect. As Tufte says, “If you know nothing, take the average or use persistence forecasting. To describe something, observe averages and variances, along with deviations from persistence forecasting. Understanding, however, requires causal explanations supported by evidence.”
  • Keep “executive dashboards” simple in design, yet full of careful, detailed information. As Tufte says, “Simple designs showing high-resolution data, well-labelled information in tables and graphics will do just fine.”

This is a challenging time for business. Many managers are making crucial decisions with a lot at stake. I hope these ideas are helpful to you as you face your challenges.

What other advice would you offer?

Other Resources

  • For a good overview of the issues and lots of references to other relevant information, see Advice for effective analytic reasoning.
  • For a wealth of training materials on hypothesis-oriented reasoning and communication, see Barbara Minto
  • For a good introduction to choosing visuals appropriate to the data and analytic purpose, see Say It With Charts, by Gene Zelazny.

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