How Framestretching adds clarity


This morning on Twitter @Bedtimemath posted the image above with the caption that read: “A natural distribution spotted in the wild! The wear on a weight machine reveals where people place its pin.

Though we experience life using multiple senses-sound, taste, touch,scent and sight, how much do we actually use to understand our place and actions?  Consider this two dimensional picture, the visual more than likely drives the meaning we make. Did the words add any more meaning to what you understood in looking at the picture?

Last Friday, the strategy discussion I lead monthly talked about visual thinking and I realized how readily my business training reduces most if not all of the perceptions available through my five senses down to only one or two.

At work, we use words or numbers and rarely put both together as well as this tweet and accompanying image.  This visual asks you to interpret the worn out paint or coating and recognize a normal distribution , which is a statistical explanation that adds another dimension to our understanding.

Could you plot a graph with the information you obnormal-sampleserve?  How about wear vs. weight?  That’s only two dimensions, with weight values on the x or horizontal access, and wear shown on the Y or vertical access.  It might look like the two dimensional graph on the right.

Does this representation tell you anything more than  the original image? I assigned numeric values to the different amount of chipped coating. Do you connect the current location of the weight on the machine as  170 across and  estimate as I did 20 up?

Both image and graph show, but don’t tell as much as we assume.

Where’s the context? Do you know the amount of time it took for the paint to chip or relative distance between observations, or usage of the machine itself?  We know nothing about the users of the machine, or its location and yet we do don’t we? The rust itself takes time to form and we can infer that more users choose at least 50 pounds, and the most users 90 pounds.

More than meets the eye

Next time you view a two dimensional graph–ask yourself what’s missing?  Try to voice and articulate the context that you’ve assumed. Yes even if you do it alone, as hearing your thoughts activates different processing.  When you do it in the company of others you will be surprised at the differences in your understanding.

I happened to see that DataScope analytics, a Chicago Based Data science firm had posted a request under data science on Reddit.  They asked “What data skills do you wish non-data people you worked with (e.g. managers, PMs, marketing, HR, etc.) have?  The responses on Reddit were quite fascinating.

Personally, I couldn’t help but notice how the replies typified the  constant challenge and struggle that any information or data presents to everyone.  What does the data mean, what is it’s significance?

The same themes arose in the conversation among business people exploring the challenges of visualizing data, in which we quicly recognized that few people see the appearance of data and instinctively look to explore it, versus others whose interest in data are for the sole purposes of confirming what they know.

The questions and process with which anyone approaches data obviously informs how it gets used and thus represented too.  Too often we use only one or two dimensions as suggested by the graph of the interpretation of the photograph.  I created the variable wear based on my interpretation of frequency approximated by the degree of chipped paint.

In contrast, the two dimensions suggest more than they reveal about how the world works.  Economists, for example, plot  supply and demand curves that look like a large X.  Supply being the first line that descends vertically, and demand the second line that Ascends.  The vertical access is Price and the horizontal access quantity.

What else is  assumed in this representation?  Geography? Time?  what about probability and or frequency?  Accuracy or specific observations as in the photograph are not the point of the representation.  It’s merely to create a general understanding of the relationship between price and quantity from two different perspectives.

The economists are exploring  and not predicting behavior, they are merely seeking ot make sense of the world not necessarily profit from it.

Further explorations that southt to clarify the assumptions led to the evolution of the  behavioral economists and  their additional perspective enahances general  understanding  of people’s beyond the one dimensional buyer or seller role and expanded the representation.  The inclusion of additional dimensions of probability also introduce additional complexity in exchange for greater understanding.

My own training as an analyst has led me to begin with exploration, and interrogate rather than merely to extend or convert  the representations. There’s always ore than meets the eye when it comes to understanding what we see.





Looking for growth? Try consciously connecting to wider systems

Transitions to Fall visible in the night sky

The Fall Equinox

Today’s marks the transition to Fall. Unlike the ancients, the equinox remains largely unnoticed and without much celebration in the northwestern hemisphere. It’s just another day that few of us will notice connects visibly to larger connected changes in our environment.

The growing mental distance between our conscious behaviors and the physical world robb us of our cosmic place. The disconnect stops us from developing and practicing a systems consciousness which creates complacency and limits our opportunity to grow.

We are taught the solar system as children, but few of us acquire system thinking. The earth’s orbit of the brilliant sun and the moon’s near orbit influence our daily routine, the hours of wakefulness and sleep.  The subtle but repeating changes in the length of our days enabled a greater understanding of agricultural cycles.  Astute observers of the visible patterns in the evening sky and their movements when connected to other recurring changes on earth made it possible to draw hope and plan.  Only by understanding the relative presence of visible patterns in the evening sky did society find continuity and connection to the past and set a clear expectation for the future.

Few of us draw conscious meaning from the changing appearance of light on the horizon or the position of stars in the sky.  We rely on universal artifacts that record and track time–calendars and clocks to keep us on task, on target and anticipate near or longer term what’s next.

Technology continues to free our time to devote our attention to leisure as well as industrious efforts.

A consciousness that focuses on slight differences amidst recurring patterns might make us seek solutions beyond the immediate cause and effect we observe.  The coincidence of the earth turning or rotating on its access while moving in orbit around the sun is only perceptible when you track the changing location of the sun in the sky throughout the day.

In your day to day transactions how much are you noticing about the changes that are happening around you and the forces that produce these actions?

A single data point, an isolated observation always represents an intersection of multiple forces.  Rarely do we capture and attach the presence of all those forces.  We take a picture and maybe the camera will include a time stamp. Digital images capture an instance, using a combination of data such as the distribution of different light across the spectrum, may be audio or even sequence of actions. Mistaking the sun’s movement for our own orbit happens to explain why it’s easy to confuse cause and effect.  The measure of distance between the earth and the sun changes every moment but only within a range that more broadly allows us to pinpoint our relative location in the wider routine path of our orbit.

Not everyone respects astrologers and I’m not endorsing connecting the orbit of the planets as a predictor of performance in any activity.  I’m merely inviting you to take a closer look at the data and the axes or contextual reference points provided.

When you look for growth, it helps to understand the forces that favor your success.  For example, an ascending curve tracking the sequence of Sales over time  may warrant additional reference points.

Think before you send out that survey

What matters?  What you say?  or What you do?

Can we learn from a binary answer? There’s a lot of clarity when given a simple Yes or No,  or asking if we do or don’t, differentiating something  good from  bad. Sure the world and people’s sentiments are often less definitive or clear. The world is full of gray and people tend to shy away from declaring something absolutely black or white.  It’s why metrics include scales.  It’s been hot, but if I want to know just how hot, I need to measure it.

Similarly, if I want to know more about how you feel, introducing a graded scale allows you to tell me something differently than forcing you to choose between extremes. The challenge is whether survey questions really get me there.

Surveys are fine instruments, when the universe of responses are “known,”  or the scale of measurement standard. For example the difference between below 32F and above differentiates freezing. Or 3 inches is one inch more than 2 inches. Measures of sentiment, belief or attitude are very difficult to standardize.

I began my career forecasting elections for CBS News.  The survey questions were very direct as shown here.  The tabulations were equally direct. Not only were the samples very carefully drawn but the population was also carefully estimated and provided a very solid denominator.  Survey responses were voluntary but  deliberately framed whether the pollster asked questions over the telephone or in person interview. The results predicted with great accuracy final election results and helped CBS and the other news outlets advantage to call winners before the real poll results were officially tabulated.  It was the point of their surveys, right? Both candidates and news outlets conduct surveys to get an accurate handle on which way voter sentiments are going.  The information is doable, insightful and thus useful.

OK, some questions are worth asking because it helps people warm up and get them to tell you what they really think or what really matters. But too often we want to know about sentiment and are not very good at framing the question.  It’s in these cases that the scale matters.  Frankly I’m tired of sifting through survey results that don’t deliver. Surveys by themselves don’t engage someone and the results often reflect their level of engagement as opposed to their true sentiment on the subject. The more concrete the option the more valid the results.

I admit I’m a sucker for information, especially when the promise of learning about my prospects’ their attitudes, desires, interests, needs and concerns is freely available.  But in the end I get what I pay for, yep, absolutely nothing.

Asking gets you where exactly?

Surveys, we hope, allow us simple, objective, opportunities to ask what we want to know.  The large sample surveys that characterize much of the information being gathered by large consulting firms, and in which I’ve been a participant, don’t live up to their promise of cultivating knowledge or insight about their customers.  In my view the approach is old school. Their ubiquity signals the ease with which surveys can be constructed, distributed and analyzed.  We can get more for less; and at the end of the day, very little of it is truly useful or provides real insights.

I wonder why C-Suite executives take part? What’s really in it for them? Do the questions draw them in and increase their attention to the topic? The receipt of results serve as quid pro quo for their input and clue them in on the feelings of their peers. That’s worth something, but again old school traditional competitive behavior doesn’t allow you to formulate strategies that deliver economic advantage.

Here are two examples of survey findings, you tell me if I’m off base.


The Wall Street Journal’s CIO blog last week  referenced a new study from McKinsey & Company.

  Roughly 49% of those surveyed said they are currently using Big Data to understand their customers better, while a combined 32% said they are currently using social media to interact with customers or promote their brands.


The survey asked 1,500 CEOs, CFOs and CIOs, in the first two weeks of April 2012, about three key business technology trends: Big data and analytics; Digital marketing and social tools; and flexible delivery platforms. More than half of the respondents  reported that the first two had made it to corporate strategy agenda’s  top-ten priority.  “In fact, for each of the three trends, between 6 and 9 percent say it is their organization’s top corporate priority.”

HMMM …wonder what that really means?  The report went on to say that ~1/3 of the executives reported their organizations looking to these trends to build a new business or tap into new profit pools.  The kicker for me about the survey and its limited use hit home when McKinsey turned to ask whether their budgets included support for these priorities. I  encourage you to take a look if you’re questioning my thesis. McKinsey notes interesting differences emerged in the findings “the discrepancy suggests the management team may lack clarity or a consistent concept about the investments needed to support digital business.”


The IBM 2010 Global CEO study discovered that CEOs cited creativity as the most important leadership quality over the next five years.

Further IBM’s  report stated innovation needs to be CORPORATE activity, not just an R&D activity.

Are your answers to these questions any different?  What would you say is the most important leadership quality for business leaders over the next five years? How do your rankings compare to the ones shown in the graph?  I suspect, but don’t know as I didn’t actually test this, average citizens might respond similarly to CEOs because the question is so general.  Why?

Improving your information relevance quotient

Have you ever asked a question when you knew the answer?  As in “Isn’t Coke the best drink on the planet?” I don’t mean to disparage the authors’ and analysts’ objectivity in creating and conducting these surveys, or criticize the soundness of their methods. These survey results represent sentiment when the value I’m seeking comes from behavioral insights best obtained from other methods.  In the end, the survey results merely add to the growing pile of information that has limited direct use and grows stale quickly,  but cost time and energy to collect, tabulate, analyze and distribute.

What other evidence would corroborate findings around important CEO qualities?  The available data would have to be public and somehow connect to actions undertaken by CEOs.  Where do you look?  You could mine their public statements or interviews, and you could look for supporting documents such as investments, resource allocations, new initiatives and the percentage of funding.  The good news? Gathering, sifting, reviewing, compiling and delivery the infomration with or with some analysis is easier than ever.  I’m just surprised that IBM, a very savvy research firm hasn’t begun to compare the two and shared its findings. Watson is good for more than winning at Jeopardy right?

In the next few weeks, I hope to try out a series of tools myself.   For example, I learned this morning about  Attensity. Text analytics systems are the plow horses that increase big data’s yield,  put to work by none other than Google to enhance their search algorithm. Do you remember when Google used to share the liklihood that their results matched your search?

I’m a big believer in skipping reinventing the wheel, so if you have done this analysis or know of any,  send them my way. I’ll keep you posted on things I find.

Are you tired of reading or even seeing trending information that lacks clarification or proper weighting?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences and any solutions you are finding promising.

Alternatively if you do find the survey results meaningful or actionable please share what makes these types of reports valuable to your work , or improve the outcomes of your tasks?