Provision #721: Data Matter

Laser Provision

My running buddies call me “Techno Bob.” And they don’t even know about my legendary computer support and troubleshooting capabilities! They are referring to the fact that I seldom run or cycle anywhere without my gadgets: GPS, heart rate, elevation, cadence, pace, and calorie trackers (to mention only a few). My friends have it wrong, however. I’m not “Techno Bob;” I’m “Data Bob.” Technology is just a way of getting the data. It’s the data that make a difference. Great leaders understand the importance of data. Without an awareness of what’s going on, we cannot take responsibility for what’s going on. And if leadership is about anything, it’s about responsibility. This Provision brings that point home.

LifeTrek Provision

I know there will be those who take me to task for my obsession with data collection. One of my first coaches, Christine McDougall, is an ultra distance runner and swimmer who enjoys the pure freedom of having no tracking gear at all. No watches. No heart rate monitors. Nothing beeping. Nothing distracting. Just pure running. Christine writes:

Falling in love with running came slowly for me. And like any lover, we have days when we fight. We also have days where we discover new joys in hanging together. Like when I found how much I love trail running, out in a forest, navigating rough terrain, surrounded by trees and sky. Or flying downhill, falling into running, totally focused, letting go, allowing gravity to take you, fearless. And those days where the mind shows up with enthusiasm and the body doesn’t…or the days when the body shows up with enthusiasm and the mind is still in bed….

Running is as essential to me as my breath. For some people this connection is found in yoga, or dance, or meditation. I need to move, and fast. I need to be out there for a chunk of time. The best times are when I disappear and there is just running and sometimes not even that. This is one of the reasons I love long distance. At some point you disappear, and time goes AWOL. I find sitting meditation hard work, but let me run for 2 or 3 hours, and there is peace. I don’t need to talk, I love silence, but I do need to move. Moving the body allows the inside to get still.

I can identify with Christine’s reflections. In last week’s Provision, Zen Matters, I, too, confessed to the struggle of sitting meditation. I have never been good at that. And I, like Christine, can run for hours at a time. Road running. Trail running. Treadmill running. I do them all, and usually without headphones or other distractions. I can remember the time I spent 3+hours on the same elliptical machine in my local health club. I was on the elliptical, instead of the treadmill, because I was recovering from an injury. I was getting ready for an important marathon, however, so I wanted to put in those 3+ hours.

People would come and people would go at the health club. I would wave at them upon arrival and I would wave at them upon departure. Some would stop and chat, not knowing what to make of this seeming craziness. Most could not imagine staying on one machine for such a long period of time. They would just shake their heads. But I was on a mission from God, to quote the Blues Brothers, and it brought me joy to do what I had set out to do (it also brought me a personal best a few weeks later at the 2000 Las Vegas Marathon, which I wrote about gleefully in Provision #174).

Since that time, I have run more than 40 marathons, ultra marathons, and triathlons. Include my training regimen, and I have probably run at least 15,000 miles (or 24,000 kilometers) in the past 10 years. That’s a lot of meditation! I mention this, however, not to boast of how many miles I have run but to observe what happened to my motivation recently when I lost my running watch. Even though I am an inveterate pavement pounder, well established in my routines, the loss of my running watch and the subsequent lack of data took a significant toll on my motivation.

It’s ironic that I would lose that watch. It goes everywhere I go including, most recently, up to the top of Mt. Kinabalu in Malaysia, at an altitude of 4,095 meters (or 13,435 feet). But recently I went for a run, right out my own front door, and the next day my watch was nowhere to be found. Since socks are the only things that seem to disappear into thin air, after being put in the drier as matched pairs, I was certain that this watch would show up again soon. It has to be in this house! But as the days turned into weeks, no watch appeared.

Now this watch is not just any watch. It is one of those smart running watches that provides far more data than most people would know what to do with. Between the built-in GPS receiver and all the accessories, including heart rate monitor, foot pod, and bike sensor, it can tell me just about every imaginable factoid about my run or ride, including:

  • Time, distance, and average pace
  • Interval splits and interval pace
  • Speed, cadence, heading, and grade
  • Current, average, and maximum heart rate
  • Calories burned
  • Sunrise and sunset

This watch can even get you back to the start when you get lost (a feature I have used more than once, not only while trail running but also in downtown Boston when my hotel kept managing to elude me). Best of all, as if that was not enough, this watch automatically uploads all this information to a personalized website, provided free-of-charge by the makers of the watch, so that you can review your run with the help of maps, charts, and a player that provides multiple views of the run on a minute-by-minute basis. I enjoy that feature when I cover new territory (like the top of Mt. Kinabalu) or when I am training and want to look at my heart rate or other factors.

Suddenly, with the mysterious disappearance of my watch, all these data were unavailable to me. It was even a challenge to figure out how long I was running, especially when I was in unfamiliar territory, let alone to know anything more specific about the routes or training-effects of my runs. Since this watch is not exactly inexpensive, I kept holding out. Surely the watch would show up! But it never did, and the lack of data began to erode my motivation and movement. Without the feedback provided by real-time data sensors, my zest, focus, and self-responsibility began to falter.

Fortunately, this was an easy problem to solve. One click on and the watch was at my door the next day (even though I had not paid for next-day shipping!). The following day, I was back on track with my running routine.

All of this is a great lesson in leadership. Data matter. If we don’t know what is happening in our organizations, both in the moment and after the fact, it will be hard to make decisions and to move forward in constructive ways. Data increase our awareness, especially when they become available continuously in real time, which inevitably leads to changes in behavior.

That is, in fact, the easiest way to change anything. Don’t try to make change happen. That’s a formula for frustration, discouragement, and defeat. Just become aware of what’s going on. Collect data. Don’t evaluate the data as to whether they are good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or undesirable, favorable or unfavorable, positive or negative. Just recognize the data as data. This is happening now. That awareness is the key to change.

The effect is really quite magical.

  • Do you want to lose weight? Then don’t try to lose weight. Just collect data on what you are eating now.
  • Do you want to become more active? Don’t try to become more active. Just collect data on your activities now.
  • Do you want to run faster? Don’t try to run faster. Just collect data on how fast you are running now.
  • Do you want to get more sleep? Don’t try to get more sleep. Just collect data on when you are sleeping now.
  • Do you want to influence more people? Don’t try to influence more people. Just collect data on the people you are interacting with now.
  • Do you want to teach better? Don’t try to teach better. Just collect data on how you are teaching now.

Collecting objective data is the key to changing behavior. As we become more aware of what is actually happening in the present moment, our behavior inevitably shifts. Those shifts may be subtle or dramatic, intentional or unintentional, immediate or gradual, preliminary or complete. However we experience them, changes in awareness always evoke changes in behavior.

For those change to be positive, the key is to collect and contemplate data from a no-fault and strengths-based orientation. My wife, Megan, and I have written a manual on how to do that:Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time. The process is easy to understand but hard to do. Our natural instinct is to collect data and then to immediately evaluate that data in terms of attributions and problems. “I’m so stupid!” “He really screwed up!” “We are not doing what we are supposed to be doing!” “This is not working out!”

There’s no end to the evaluative assessments we can lay on top of observational data. Most of us are quite good at that, whether our judgments are directed inward toward ourselves or outward toward others. We think we are trying to help, pointing out what’s wrong and how to do things better. But such “constructive criticism,” more often than not, pushes people in destructive directions. Here is how Thomas Crane describes the dynamic in his excellent book, The Heart of Coaching.

“You have probably heard the phrase constructive criticism. If something is truly critical, how can it be constructive? “Constructive criticism” is an oxymoron; these two conditions cannot coexist. The affect of criticism on human beings, regardless of intent, is almost always negative. People usually do not feel helped when they are being criticized. Criticism is usually:

  • A personal attack
  • Focused on the problem rather than the solution
  • Destructive, rather than constructive (even when it is called ‘constructive’)
  • Focused on the past instead of future performance”

What does Crane recommend? First, he encourages leaders to focus on the positive as much as possible. Without denying reality, leaders can still focus on the things that are going well and the potential for greater things. “This focus,” Crane writes, “stimulates openness, innovation, and creativity and is a more helpful framework for solving problems.”

Second, he encourages leaders to focus on the data through a learning lens. Data are not criticisms; they are opportunities for constructive feedback and coaching. For that feedback and coaching to be constructive, Crane offers the following guidelines:

  • Suspend Judgment (set aside critical thoughts)
  • Assume Innocence (give people the benefit of the doubt)
  • Identify Your Assumptions (keep an open mind)
  • Become Curious (consider multiple possibilities)
  • Embrace Humility (recognize our limitations and vulnerability)

In Evocative Coaching we develop and expand upon these recommendations through specific approaches for story listening, expressing empathy, appreciative inquiry, and design thinking. We encourage leaders and coaches to look for signs of vitality and to share data with people in ways that increase awareness without increasing defensiveness. When that happens, behavior begins to shift and transformation begins to occur. In the absence of criticism, data can become the treasure it always has the potential to be: an opportunity to see ourselves in new ways, to take action, and to grow in new directions.

When I lost my access to the data provided by my running watch I lost some of my consistency, enthusiasm, productivity, and creativity. That surprised me. I thought, after all these years, that my running was in a pretty solid groove. But the lack of data had a corrosive effect. That goes to show just how much I enjoy the feedback. I like to challenge myself in ways that the data reinforces. Without the data, I lacked the challenge. Without the challenge, I lacked the zest for the entire enterprise.

No wonder my running buddies call me “Techno Bob.” I don’t know anyone else who gets so much pleasure from a watch. But it’s really about the data, the feedback, and the no-fault, strengths-based processing that I go through with each and every run. I don’t look at the data to figure out what’s wrong and what I could have done better. I look at the data to know what’s happening. From there, I let awareness take its course.

Coaching Inquiries: What are your data sources in life and work? How do you relate to them? Do they discourage you? Overwhelm you? Intrigue you? How could they become more of a friend to you? What would have to shift in order for you to see things through a learning lens? Who could become a conversation partner with you to increase your awareness and realize your potential.

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

I have enjoyed reading your “Provisions” through the years. You are a creative thinker and are able to explain those thoughts well in words. I was particularly struck by your recent column on “Jesus Matters” and then this most recent column on “Zen Matters.” The former was an outstanding exposition on the relevance of Jesus to a secular society. The latter was a compelling commentary on the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the evil acts that people commit. Thank you for providing such moral clarity, particularly as you described acts as evil, rather than people as evil.

Great stuff on Zen. I do read all of your Provisions, not usually on Monday morning, but I am glad I read this one today.

I was saddened to read in Provisions that some people decided to unsubscribe as a result of reading your thoughtful Provision after 9-11. You’ve done it again with this Provision after the death of Osama bin Laden.

I was very disappointed in listening to President Obama’s announcement about the demise of bin Laden. He kept referring to the idea that this killing was bringing bin Laden to “justice.” I would have preferred that he said something more along the lines of Neale Donald Walsch like, “There is no question that many lives have been saved as a result of this event, because no one can doubt that Mr. bin Laden was planning future death and destruction.•

Most significantly the people directly impacted by the the events of 9-11, the people who lost loved ones, didn’t then and do not now want revenge. They wanted understanding and healing then, and have said that bin Laden’s death brought no resolution or closure to the loss they experienced. Revenge only seems to provide satisfaction to those not involved. And even then it’s a false sense of satisfaction or solace.

In any case, thanks for the thoughtful words in the previous Provisions article and your sharing of your own reaction to the feedback. Stay courageous and determined.

Thank you for putting out the only thoughtful reflections I have read on the President’s much-vaunted assassination raid on an unarmed man in front of his family in his own house inside a sovereign nation where our death squad had no permission to act. How this flagrant violation of universal moral principles is able to spawn public rejoicing, improved polling and an absurd sense of “closure” completely escapes me.

And it makes me very sad. It says that America just doesn’t care about what’s behind the vicious acts of 9/11. It means that we as a nation have no time to achieve reconciliation with our enemies. Our only aim, it seems, is bloody vengeance. The death of Bin Laden ends any hope of turning this great enemy into a friend, of creating a real and lasting peace in which sisters and brothers who share this planet set aside their grievances, forgive one another and resolve to create a new humanity in which there will never be another 9/11. Thank you for providing a much needed alternative viewpoint on this tragic episode. And please, do not ever unsubscribe me! 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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