On Communication

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Published on: March 6, 2013

It’s a rare weekday post from me.  I’m updating now rather than my normal weekend posts because I think the topic of conversation is fading rapidly.  I want to get my two cents while the iron is still slightly warm.

I mentioned last time that I Twittered into the Sloan Conference last weekend.  Since that time, the panel that seems to have had the most legs beyond the conference is the panel on communication.  Commentators have gone on at length about the good information that was in that panel essentially saying that quantitative people need to be concerned about how they are presenting their ideas.  In classic terms, this was the “thesis.”

Then people started mulling over the thesis and I saw some reactions against that line of thinking.  Some people saying that communication is a two way street and the burden is not solely on the quantitative people in the room.  Front office people also need to be learning rudimentary statistics to help facilitate that communication that they are looking for.  We can call this the “antithesis.”

My goal in this post is to provide some synthesis.  Let’s combine these ideas to see what we can take forward.  I often find that when I’m trying to communicate with non-analytic people, the issue is a difference in mindset.  I don’t mean to imply that every individual within these two general groups thinks in this way.  However, I do believe that the general tendencies exist and are worth mentioning.  What might Front Office People and Quantitative Analysts not know about one another that could be inhibiting this communication?

Front Office People – You need to understand that quantitative analysis is a process of pointing out what’s wrong.  Every day I show up at work and think up some ideas.  I spend the rest of the day trying to find a way to demonstrate that those ideas are wrong. If I don’t do this, my colleagues will do it for me when I present, or my peers will do it when I try to publish my ideas.  I have literally sat in a room while a friend and colleague asked me a series of questions that had the possibility of invalidating six entire years of work.  We don’t do this to each other because we’re assholes.  We do this because it is the quickest way to the best answer.  The idea is that if we spend all of our time, energy, and brain power on ripping down this idea, whatever can’t be ripped down must be worth pursuing.  The entire process of analysis is a process of falsification.  Always remember, when you pay an analyst to run some numbers you are paying them to tell you that you are wrong.

Analysts – There is a reason so many of us are depressed alcoholics.  The constant falsification and focusing on what we’ve done wrong rather than what we’ve done right is not a typically healthy mindset to be in.  Most of the rest of the world does not think this way.  It hurts to be reminded that we’re wrong.  We analysts have a pretty thick callus over that particular spot, but most don’t.  Most people want to be reminded that they are right.  They want to be affirmed and given positive reinforcement.  As analysts, we have to be very concerned with how we frame our responses.  The old clichéd story about the dream interpreter comes to mind.  The “your dream means your children will all die before you vs. your dream means you will outlive all with eyes on your thrown” thing.  The first interpretation gets the interpreter killed while the second gets the interpreter a cushy job and some treasure, but they are both the same interpretation.

Here is the message that I got from the communication panel.  Framing answers is what will truly separate the successful analysts from the unsuccessful ones.  The analysts that will continue to have jobs are the artists who can continuously tell powerful people they are wrong and still keep the powerful people happy.  That is not a trivial skill.  It takes effort and patience to reframe our traditional ways of thinking for those that aren’t as familiar with them.  And from the non-analyst side, analysts aren’t assholes, even though we might talk like we are sometimes.

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