What Color Are Your Glasses?

The other day I heard that in the ancient world the most important ideas were documented in poetry and today our important ideas are captured in spreadsheets.  Although not complete accurate, it is thought-provoking.  What important ideas, passions, or world views are wrapped in the allure of facts and figures and presented as data?  I have long contended that a spreadsheet was an exceptional tool for writing fiction.   Not that people mean harm or to mislead, but each time you have to complete a cell you are making a host of assumptions.  To use the vocabulary of Excel, every number in every cell is filtered.  Filtered by your point of view.

It is the time of year when people are wearing sun glasses.  Where I am from in Oregon, we might be even more sensitive after enduring (ahem, enjoying) months of overcast skies.  And each one of our chooses lenses to wear – both literally and figuratively – to view the world.  Some people wear rose-tinted glasses and see the world as friendly and optimistic (and boy, do we need more of those people in our modern world).  Others see it shaded gray.  Others buy specialty lenses that highlight colors or shapes, like the glasses one can buy for golfing that help the ball stand out on the green. 

An interesting thing happens when you wear glasses for a while: you no longer can see the tint.  Your eyes adjust and the world takes on the colors and meaning that you’d expect.  You know the sky is blue, even if your glasses tinge it green.

Our ability to characterize and categorize input (to know what data is important) and to adjust our perceptions to our world view (like our eyes adjusting to tinted lenses), is part of what makes us human.  And this humanity can make us blind to data that doesn’t fit into our table cleanly or points of view that differ from our own. 

I was working on a financial projection spreadsheet recently (that became even more convincing, I must say, because it was accompanied by a PowerPoint slide deck complete with infographic images and charts from a research analyst) and was reminded the power of the lens. 

When you are working on a presentation, you start by asking what you want the “take away” to be.  What do you want your audience or reader to understand better because of the presentation you are giving?  What decision do you want them to make?  And although it is proper presentation planning, that desired outcome begins its work of filtering and coloring the work of the presentation.  To avoid one-sided analysis, I sought alternative input and ended up putting in a few slides that presented an alternative view.  A different way to look at the issue at hand.  To open the door for discussion.  To guard against too narrow thinking.   And to document assumptions.

It was a hard thing to do: to get away from the data and the analysis far enough to see a different picture, to take in different input, to identify what had been “thrown away” to make the clean and compelling point.  But it proved to be valuable and, in the end, will lead to a better outcome. 

So whether your best ideas are captured in poetry or in spreadsheets, it is important to remember that your best ideas might be improved, if you take off your glasses.

This article was first posted on LinkedIn Pulse