Christopher Surdak, President & CEO
As an engineer, science fiction movies are usually a hit with me. Nothing entertains me like a space opera with lasers, robots and Homeric heroes. But when I’m asked which movie is my favorite some that make my short list might be a surprise. The Shawshank Redemption is one such movie. Set in the mid 1900’s and based on a novella written by Stephen King, this movie is about a man who, by a tragic turn of events, found himself serving two life terms in prison for murders he didn’t commit.
Rather than letting this hopeless situation crush his spirit, he sets himself on a forty-year-long mission to get out. It’s a story that shows how your situation is not your fate. Rather how you choose to deal with your situation determines your fate. If you are honest with yourself about your situation, and deal with it with hope instead of despair, you might generate surprising results in the end.
A Prison of Habit?
I recently had a discussion with two executives from a large financial firm. We covered a range of topics, both internal and external to their company, from negative interest rates to ISIL, and from re-engagement with Cuba to their troubles with connecting with Generation Z. As hither-and-yon as these topics may be, they are interrelated, or at least that’s what all of my research over the last decade tells me. These disruptions to the world most of us grew accustomed to are appearing in all aspects of our lives. To me, this synchronicity is no accident.
Over the last three years I’ve given over three hundred presentations on Big Data, Analytics and Organizational Change so I’ve seen a lot of reactions from a lot of audiences. The reactions almost always follow the Seven Stages of Dealing with Loss. According to psychologists these seven stages are:
From my hundreds of presentations on Big Data, disruption, and so on, shock is the most typical response I have seen. Those who are shocked usually just leave the room, mouths open, eyes wide as saucers, a slight stagger to their gait. I have noticed that it is not unusual for me to finish my presentation, ask if there are any questions and no one will volunteer one, at least not at first.
However, when I stick around after a presentation, people will invariably approach me about half an hour later fairly bursting with questions. That’s a good indication of shock: it takes people a while to process what they just heard, digest it a bit, and only then can they respond with a million questions on what they just heard. I’m generally sure that they’ll survive their initial shock when they’re asking questions faster than I can answer them.
Shock comes in Big Data once people realize how pervasive these tools and techniques already are, how far behind most organizations really are, and how difficult it will be to catch up to those with a head start. If you are here, there is much work for you to do.
The bulk of executives I meet with go with Denial: Maybe all of that change is going on, but we’re immune to it because INSERT SOME RATIONALE OR OTHER HERE. They’re convinced that because of some specialness in what they do, change won’t happen to them. And over the years, I’ve heard them all: We’re too big, we’ve been doing this too long, we’re too regulated, we’re too smart, we’re too simple, we’re too complex, we’re too capital-intensive, our customers love us too much, and so on and so on. Denial is easy because it costs nothing, at least for a while. And, it is remarkably self-assuring to tell yourself that through your hard work you’re too-something for the outside world to affect you. Your competitors love it when you buy into the notion that you’re some kind of special snowflake, because you’re making it easy for them to annihilate you while you sit in your comfortable bubble.
Denial is common because it is easy, it doesn’t require much thought or effort, and it’s really cheap, at least for a while.
A small percent in the audience responds with anger. However, those who are angered by what I present rarely approach me to discuss their anger directly. Instead they let it fly on their surveys after the event. After all, it’s easy to get in someone’s face when you’re not actually in their face. Anyone can be courageous through anonymity. When this happens they’re usually attacking me on style, rather than content. I was too brash, I wasn’t PC enough, the color of my Starbuck’s cup was offensive, whatever. I generally feel that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Variety makes us stronger. So, when I get this sort of response I usually write it off as another example of people who believe in being ‘open minded,’ as long as you do it their way.
Anger in Big Data comes from the notion that everything people have worked so hard to achieve for so long is somehow wrong. That somehow, everyone that has worked at business or technology for the last fifty years is somehow incompetent or ignorant, and that the changes we now face should have been knowable decades ago. Anger with this viewpoint is fair, because this assessment is anything but fair. People weren’t incompetent for the last 60 years. Rather, they were so successful that their entire game has now changed.
Bargaining is the next phase of grief management, where the mind tries to make a deal with the universe, attempting to get a better outcome through karmic barter. This almost always manifests as someone saying, “I retire in X years, I just want things to stay the same until then so I don’t have to deal with it.” I hear that one A LOT! Bargaining maintains your subconscious’ need for the illusion of control, rather than accepting that in this instance you have none. Loss of control is very disquieting, so trying to trade a smaller loss for the one that you’re facing is an obvious psychic ploy.
Bargaining is the typical strategy for technical people. They frequently skip past all of the emotional mumbo-jumbo, and want to get right to solving the problem. Or at least, what they believe to be the problem. You see bargaining when technical people start to offer less-offensive solutions to the problem at hand. Sometimes these might actually work. But, more often, they are palliative detours designed to make people feel like they can choose the degree of change required by the situation at hand.
In Big Data, you see bargaining every time a CIO or CTO claims that a new platform is the solution to everything. You see it every time a CMO or COO gets a technology budget of their own. You see it every time a CEO introduces their company to their new “Chief Data Officer,” who has no budget, staff or mandate other than to make this ‘data stuff’ go away.
A relatively few go with Depression; we are doomed and there’s nothing we can do about it. I try to console them with, “There’s plenty that you can do, it just might not be what you WANT to do.” Generally, when someone is at this point they’ve already found clear indications that their world has changed, and the results of that change are becoming clear. Customers may be leaving in increasing numbers, revenues are down, profitability is tanking, your best employees are leaving, and so on. Or worse, some upstart has already shown up in your market and is eating your lunch, Uber-style.
Depression sets in once you realize that not only have things around you changed, but you yourself must also change if you’re going to survive. Passively accepting change is hard enough. Full-blow depression sets in when you realize that you must respond to outside change by actively changing yourself. Your task just got at least twice as hard, and it’s a bummer, isn’t it?
In Big Data, depression comes when you realize that your hyper-expensive, 23 wonkabyte, 10,000 node Hadoop cluster didn’t magically solve every problem your business has ever had. It comes when you realize that the “data scientist” you hired off LinkedIn didn’t have a PhD in statistics, they had a PhD in the Appreciation of Statistics, and a minor in creative writing. It comes when you realize that your new Blockchain marketplace is just as hackable as every other “hack-proof” technology that has ever come before, in the six millennia that people have been trying to make information “Hack-Proof.” And depression comes when you realize that everything that your own compliance department said that you couldn’t possibly do was just done by six college drop-outs living on a boat anchored 12.01 nautical miles off the coast of the United States.
As we enter what Gartner Group calls the “trough of disillusionment” with Big Data, expect to see a lot more depressed people wondering about wondering what to do next.
Testing is where we begin to explore the possibility that what has happened is not going to undo itself, and what might that reality entail. We attempt to see what our new world might look like, and try to see ourselves in it. Our minds do this all the time. When we chose our preferred narrative, our preferred response and our desired outcome we call it daydreaming. Day dreaming is fun, because we are in control. Testing is not as much fun, because we don’t control the narrative, our response is what we hope is the best compromise, and the outcome is very much in doubt. Nonetheless, reaching the point of testing is a good sign because you’re returning to your present self, and you’re preparing to deal with change rationally and productively.
In the arena of Big Data disruption, Testing starts to show itself when business leaders start to brainstorm how they could change, what those changes would entail, and what benefits might accrue. If these thoughts are joined with a healthy dose of “and here’s the pain of not changing,” then there’s a much greater chance of success in whatever steps you choose.
Acceptance feels like a release, because it is. It is a release of all of the doubt, hurt, fear and other negative energies that cause us to freeze in the first place. There’s a freedom in finally acknowledging change. There’s a clarity that comes from finally accepting that you must change, and that you have no alternative. Making a choice, even if it is one you don’t want to make, frees up enormous psychological energy. Rather than focusing on methods of prevention or escape, you focus on how to succeed with your new reality.
When I wrote this I thought to myself, “Is this true? What about the Shawshank Redemption” Andy Dufresne seemed to never succumb to his reality in prison. Andy never accepted that he was a convict, and struggled to regain his freedom. Superficially, he never gave up hope that he would get out. But, look closer and you will find that Steven King had a deeper thesis than this. In the story, Andy does indeed go through the seven phases of dealing with loss (of his freedom).
At the end of the movie, when he is finally looking for the strength to follow his escape plan he only gets there through acceptance. His last statement to his friend Red is, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” This scared Red to no end, as he interpreted this to mean Andy would kill himself. But, this was not the case. Andy wasn’t ending his life, he was ending his denial and indecision over his situation. He came to accept that if he didn’t make a risky choice, then he was doomed by the world around him. What appeared in the movie to be defeat and resignation was actually acceptance. And this acceptance finally gave Andy the courage to take control of his situation, and reclaim his life.
This movie, The Shawshank Redemption, was not a story about how people suffer from injustice, it was a story about Andy chose to fix injustice by acceptance and action.
Holistic Medicine for Your Data
Wherever you are in your process of dealing with Big Data-Induced Grief, we are here to help. We know what you’re going through because we’ve gone through it, too, and we took good notes along the way. Surdak & Company won’t keep you from getting scars. After all, you are crossing a chasm filled with digital thorns and sharing-economy dragons. But, most of us have already earned our first aid merit badges, and we are well-stocked with Bactine.