Curiosity killed the stat: why we should avoid becoming slaves to data

Hands up. How many of you spend much/most of your time peddling data, charts and other fact-based information? And how much time do you spend challenging yourself, learning new ideas, indulging your curiosity and feeling a sense of surprise and fulfilment? And finally how much of the inquisitive, itchy child do you feel your job appeals to rather than the “only- 30-more-years-of-wage-slavery-if-I’m-lucky” mindset?

I see this as a symptom of what I call the “arithmocracy”, a pernicious system based on numbers-based measurement and control that is in danger of becoming our default monoculture.

We are becoming slaves to the algorithm, hurtling towards a culture where everything from the NHS to our education system is driven by league tables and metrics: from the City to the Police Force to the creation and evaluation of marketing communications, everything is being fed into a runaway system of measurement, prediction and control fuelled by arithmocrats who are part accountant, part engineer and part spreadsheet but largely dismissive of creativity, emotion and instinct.

The body of evidence gathered loosely under the heading of Behavioural Economics should once and for all make it unarguable that human behaviour cannot and should not be modelled on physics, mathematics and engineering with its belief in the “homo economicus”, a purely rational and consistent entity whose first thought on waking is “how shall I maximise my utility today?”

But somehow we have allowed psychology and human creativity to be shackled in the chains of the arithmocracy.

Instead we need to embrace – and not fear – emotion, spontaneity and our instinct for curiosity: in the terms popularised by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we need to accept the power of System 1 (the adaptive unconscious) over System 2 [the post-rationalising interpreter] and and allow our employees (ourselves) to be playful and imaginative on a day-to-day basis.

 

Stimulating curiosity

Part of the problem lies with business’s desire to keep calm and carry on while reducing insight, inspiration and creativity to a wacky, left-field part of the forest [aka Shoreditch] to be visited rarely and only in a beret and sandals.

Yet everywhere I look there are companies desperately seeking salvation through the Next Big Thing- a new product, service, brand or creative idea that will guarantee economic salvation (or at least survival).

But why content ourselves with out-sourcing our curiosity?

Unless we integrate a sense of curiosity, creativity and imagination into our employees and colleagues (as well as across the education system) we will do little but pay lip service to the imagination we claim to crave.

Theorists of insight agree that true breakthroughs come from allowing fundamentally curious people to create serendipitous collisions and combinations, largely in the unconscious System 1: these largely happen in what are termed “bed, bath, bus” situations when the conscious System 2 is off-line.

We’ve all been there.

 

Insighting change

There are a number of key principles and practices we can learn and apply to our business cultures to make them porous to what I call “insightment” (a blend of insight, incitement and excitement).

  1. Insight often comes about through naivety. In the book I explore some examples of outsiders who succeed by asking naïve questions which experts are too cognitively invested in to ask.
  2. Condone and even encourage humour, wit and playfulness are far more fertile than our po-faced, reductionist arithmocracy will tolerate but we need to find ways of taming these qualities and breeding them in live corporate cultures.
  3. Discourage groupthink by deliberately recruiting against the norm. The instinct to recruit “in one’s image” is ingrained but can often lead to the perpetuation of conventions and lazy assumptions about our business.
  4. Legitimise, attract and reward curiosity. As someone who lectures at university [and as a parent], I often lament how so much of the marketing/comms industry tends to attract curious, open-minded young people but then we bleed the curiosity out of these still innocently-questioning minds.
  5. Institute “Meandering Time”. Like Google, allow employees the right to wander and sail away from the shores of convention, even if it’s only 20% of the time.

Let’s create a culture of insightment in the office: surely then we will all feel happier and more fulfilled, and our innate human curiosity can flourish rather than perishing in a desert of data.

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Anthony Tasgal is a trainer, author, speaker, brand strategist and lecturer. He also lectures at the London College of Communication, Bucks New Uni, Nottingham Trent and Beijing Normal University Zhuhai. He is the author of the award-winning “The Storytelling Book”: his new book, “The Inspiratorium”, a compendium and “collide-a-scope” of insight, inspiration and curiosity was published this Summer. 

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