A Rebel Who’s A Quant Can Be A Valuable Asset

ANSWERS, NOT DATA. Why some marketers succeed with analytics and others don’t. (A Medium book). Chapter 1.

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“Were there none who were discontented with what they have, the world would never reach anything better.”

Florence Nightingale, Nursing Pioneer and World-Class Statistician

How do you feel or think when you hear the word rebel? Do you have a favorable or unfavorable reaction? Many people I ask say they have an adverse response.

Think of these religious/spiritual leaders: Moses, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Mohammad, Hildegard of Bingen, Martin Luther, Mary Baker Eddy, and Mother Teresa. That’s a pretty broad and elite group. Do you think they were rebels? They were Hall of Fame rebels.

Religious figures having a rebel disposition is one thing, but what about quants? When you imagine Katherine Johnson (NASA leader made famous in the movie Hidden Figures), Albert Einstein (one of the pillars of modern physics), Marie Curie (two-time Noble Prize winner), or Charles Babbage (the father of the computer), do you think they had a rebel streak? Of course, they did.

Having a rebel disposition then is often required to effect positive change. But not any type of rebel will do. It takes a certain type, someone more like Florence Nightengale, than a rebel like The Joker.

At the core, Florence Nightingale’s quote then is about a positive aspect of rebels, that is, they can be agents of change. But she was more than just a rebel. She was also a world-class statistician; a quant. In my experience, that combination, what I call a ‘Rebel who’s a Quant’, gives marketers and others working with analytics, a synergy multiplier to help you find the truth and make a change.

And that’s our focus of this chapter, how being a ‘Rebel who’s a Quant’ can be a valuable asset for a marketer working with analytics, to help you find answers in data that others missed, face down those biased against you, and sell others on your ideas to effect positive change.

We start our rebel journey in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

It takes an extraordinary kind of rebel

Early in my career, I was a marketing and product manager at Honeywell’s then corporate office in Minneapolis, within the building controls industry. Changes in technology, competition, and customer expectations were happening fast, and my colleagues and I were continually pitching the senior leadership or field sales teams on new trends, products, go-to-market approaches, and ways to sell.

It was difficult at times. Given Honeywell’s size and markets, we had plenty of data, in fact, I never heard anyone ever say we can’t make a decision because we don’t have enough data. But data alone didn’t always win the argument, as people who felt threatened would cherry-pick what they wanted to believe. I remember Bill Gillquist, my boss at the time, telling me something like, “Many times, the passionate person in the room beats the person with data. But a passionate person with facts beats all. You’ve got to be a Viking with facts, now that’s unstoppable.” Bill was an expressive Minnesota born Norwegian. I liked his style.

However, Bill’s analogy of a Viking wasn’t about ransacking and pillaging a town. He was using the mythology of a Viking and three essential inner traits to help them in their undertaking:

Passion

Energy

Commitment

Over the years, I’ve substituted the word rebel for Viking, and quant for facts. That’s the genesis of where ‘Rebel who’s a Quant’ came from. But my rebel isn’t interested in raising the Jolly Roger pirate flag.

Nevertheless, we have a love-hate relationship with rebels. The Rebel Alliance loved Luke Skywalker, but Emperor Palpatine surely didn’t as he sent a whole Imperial Fleet to crush him. And the Continental Army loved George Washington, but King George III wanted to hang him for rebellious treason.

It seems we love the rebel whose actions are in line with our beliefs and disdain the rebel who is in disagreement with us.

Maybe though that rebel is the person in the meeting room sitting next to you who just presented an analysis that is in line with your beliefs. “You betcha”, using Minnesota speak, you like them and their rebel streak with getting stuff done.

But on the other hand, you might have righteous indignation towards them because you judge them as a troublemaker and contrarian that complicates what you think as seemingly straightforward decisions, thereby creating chaos, and disagreeing when everyone else agrees.

Maybe we ought to thank them for bringing a different perspective, for as one of the world’s leading experts in how to get along with others said,

“When two partners always agree, one of them is not necessary.”

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

The particular type of rebels I’m interested in, don’t want to create chaos per se. They don’t want to watch the world burn, but instead, they want to change the world for the better as they see it. These rebels ‘Think Different’ as the 1990’s Apple ad campaign espoused.

In their DNA, these rebels have unconventional outlooks, and instead of clinging to what is safe and familiar, and falling back on routines and tradition, they defy the status quo. They are masters of innovation and reinvention, and at their rebellious core, there is a deep restlessness. Their rebellious nature drives them.

But why specifically will a rebel disposition help marketers, and others, reach the highest levels of success with analytics and insights?

You need passion, energy, and commitment to affect change

Analytics tends to lead to change. Yet human nature is to resist it especially when you are in power. I learned this first hand in the corporate world when I led my first big project at Honeywell. The research team I captained faced substantial resistance to a major business change we were proposing. Looking back, I know if I didn’t have my positive rebel trait we would not have succeeded.

But before going into that, I want to share what I learned from Bill about resistance to change. If you’re going to be successful with using analytics to affect a new way of doing something, then you have to understand the human nature of resisting that change, in order that you can figure out to use a rebel disposition to overcome it. All the data in the world won’t be enough at times. I was graced to have Bill as my boss as he had helped me understand why.

He gave me a book that at the time I’d never heard of before; The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli published in 1532. It is considered by many as the most influential book of its time, and one of the most influential management books of all time.

Just about any organizational issue gets vetted in the book: human nature, leadership, power, politics, motivation, reputation management, and social relations more broadly. However, most people have trouble with and don’t always see past the ruthlessly pragmatic parts.

But if you can decouple the ethics of it all from the strategy itself, it’s one of the best business books you’ll lay your eye-on. It’s also relevant to why it takes a rebel to effect change. Here’s what Machiavelli said.

“And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as a leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only the lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new. This lukewarm temper arises partly from the fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who will never admit the merit of anything new, until they have seen it proved by the event.”

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

There it is; people are fearful of change. They cling to the devil they know, often because it relates to a narrative they have about themselves and life. Change can rock anyone’s core and so it’s more comfortable holding on and ignoring the truth. Like the character Linus in Peanuts, we humans hold on tightly to our blankets, even if it is old and worn out. As much as I tend to be a rebel and an agent of change, in all honestly, I can be darn resistant too at times to change. But on that first big Honeywell project, I was all for change.

The birth of a $11 billion industry

Two other colleagues, Mark Shunk and Tom Fisher, and I were researching if Honeywell should pursue the K-12 school market and renovations of their heating, ventilation, air conditioning (HVAC), and lighting systems with a creative new sales and financing approach. It was at the time a pretty radical thing with a lot of risks and implications on the company strategy, staffing, centers of power, product direction, and more.

What happened was two Honeywell sales reps, Colleen Cox and John Carter, with the coaching of their bosses Frank McFadden and Curt Huston, had sold a then unheard of $1 million service project, to a group of school districts near Philadelphia, to perform HVAC and lighting renovations and creatively finance the work by paying for it out of future energy savings. It wasn’t just a large project, it was the first of its kind in the USA.

The questions Honeywell’s Building Services Division executive leadership team wanted to have answers to were: 1) was this sale an aberration or the tip of a spear coming at them; was the market real and not a fluke, 2) if we pursued it did we have or would we be able to have the infrastructure, cost structure, expertise, and more required so that we’d be confident we could win a sufficient share, and 3) in the end why would it be highly worthwhile for Honeywell to aggressively pursue the market and in fact create the market, in lieu of pursuing investing into some other growth engine?

Being in my mid-20’s at the time, and with the spotlight that was on this project, I privately wondered occasionally if I was up to the job of leading the team; conducting and sifting through a large amount of data, spreadsheets, and research, that wasn’t clear cut; and coming up with solid, logical, well throughout, thorough answers.

I’m grateful though that I possess what I know are positive traits of a rebel, as they helped me a lot on this and other projects.

  1. Being a rebel gave me a superpower of ‘passion’ to drive a deep curiosity, thirst, and restlessness for finding the truth until I could first convince myself before I considered convincing others.

All that being said, I also know Grace was at work, beyond Adam Smith’s famous Invisible Hand. We’ll come back to that in chapters 7 and 8.

When we wrapped up our research project we recommended that Honeywell pursue the market and commit substantial investments of people and other costs. I was to lead pitching the executive group, but others including Bill, Mark, and Tom were ready to chime in as needed.

Many of the executives were skeptical going into the meeting. Most were biased against the idea before even hearing the pitch. Some were threatened about pursuing this market as it would change where resources would be focused and if you were one of the people who would lose resources you’d lose power. I was nervous.

On the day of the presentation, while anxious, I was ready for resistance. The presentation took place in a surprisingly small conference room. I recall maybe 20 people or so in attendance, and everyone was way to close to each other. This made it, even more, intimidating to me as I had little space between me and the executives I was pitching.

The data, and more so the answers, were laid out. I thought it was compelling. Then Les Paulsen, a towering 6 foot 5 inch, legendary personality at Honeywell, leaned in and said something like, “So Tim you want us to pursue a market with old buildings, no money, who bids out their work, and is filled with politics?” Looking back I realize this was a monumental moment in my young career. I could have shirked. But being a rebel, I didn’t. I simply and with confidence replied, “That’s correct.”

Over the remainder of the meeting, I and others addressed every one of Les’s and the other executives’ concerns. When it was over, we had convinced the crowd that this was a market to pursue. Honeywell went all in and over the years, Colleen and John’s innovative idea, what has become known as Energy Performance Contracting, has grown into a $11 billion a year industry in the USA and magnitudes larger worldwide, according to the National Association of Energy Services Companies.

But all the data in the world wouldn’t have meant anything if I wasn’t a ‘Rebel who’s a Quant’. Colleen and John’s breakthrough project would have been one and done for a while, and Honeywell would have squandered being first to market. That wouldn’t have been a tragedy though, just a missed opportunity.

On the other hand, had Florence Nightingale not been discontented, and a ‘Rebel who’s a Quant’, well that would have been a real tragedy for millions of lives over the past 150 years.

The Lady with the Lamp

Florence was born on May 12, 1820, to a prosperous British family. However, she was not interested in the high society aspects of her privileged upbringing. Nightingale decided that nursing was her calling; she believed it to be her divine purpose. But her parents forbade her to pursue appropriate training. However, her ‘passion’ (rebel trait #1) gave her the power to ignore them.

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Florence Nightingale

Then in 1849, Nightingale turned down a marriage proposal, as she longed for something beyond domestic life. Despite intense anger and distress from her family, being a rebel, she had the ‘energy’ (rebel trait #2) to keep her dream burning and follow what was alive in her.

Then finally, in 1859, resolved and ‘committed’ (rebel trait #3) to pursue her true calling despite her parents’ objections, Nightingale enrolled as a nursing student in Germany.

That’s the type of rebel I’m speaking about; passion, energy, and commitment.

For the next several years, she took a nursing job in an English hospital for ailing governesses. Faced with a cholera outbreak and unsanitary conditions, Nightingale made it her mission to improve hygiene practices. In the process, she significantly lowered the death rate at the hospital. She could have stopped there, being satisfied that she achieved a lot. But that’s not a rebel.

In 1853 The Crimean War broke out between Russia, Turkey, Britain, and France. The war became an iconic symbol of logistical, medical, and tactical military failures. British Poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade memorialized the tragedy with the famous lines “Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die.”

In the past 250 years, the Crimean War had the highest percentage of combatants who died in a major war. Of the approximate, 1.7 million soldiers who began the war from all nations, close to 1 million or almost 60% died during the conflict. That’s a combatant death rate percentage about 50% higher than in World War II.

But the high mortality rate wasn’t because of bullets, cannon fire, or swords. About four times as many soldiers died of disease, as did die in combat or from wounds. Said another way, you were way more afraid you’d die of cholera, dysentery, or infections. But the Army doctors just thought this was normal for the times and that there wasn’t much they could do other than care for the sick and those soon to die.

By 1854, England’s Army needed nurses, and the authorities asked Florence to organize and travel to the Crimea region with a corps of caregivers.

When she and her fellow nurses arrived, they faced horrid conditions; contaminated water due to the hospital sitting on top of a vast cesspool, patients lying in their excrement, and rodents and bugs scurrying past them. Bandages and soap were in scarce supply. The rationing of freshwater took place. Nightingale got to work.

Like she did in England, she and her staff began implementing sanitary reform. She procured hundreds of scrub brushes, even asking the least infirm patients to participate in cleaning the hospital from floor to ceiling. Then in the evenings, she moved through the darkened hospital carrying a lamp while making her rounds. The soldiers called her ‘The Lady with the Lamp’.

Nightingale uses her Quant skills to change healthcare forever

Again, Nightingale could have stopped there, being satisfied that she and her staff made a significant positive contribution to the compassionate and successful care of the wounded. But being a ‘Rebel who’s a Quant’, she had more to do.

She knew inside that sometimes you can’t be content with soothing the signs of suffering, but instead, you need to disrupt the causes of pain. Perhaps said best by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice; we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor, author and anti-Nazi dissident

So, what more could Nightingale do? She had to convince others that there needed to be a change, and that her way of caring for the infirmed, saved massive numbers of lives.

Nightingale just so happened to also be a gifted statistician. She knew that just providing rows and columns of data to others wouldn’t be enough to make a change. The Army already had the data about the cause of deaths. What Florence needed was a new way to present her data that got people’s attention.

She took her data and invented one of the most widely used graphical techniques in use today, the polar-area chart, where the data showed is proportional to the area of a wedge in a circular diagram.

Florence plotted the incidence of preventable deaths in the military versus those due to combat. That, in turn, led to her being able to convince others that change on a grander scale was required.

Here’s her famous chart of deaths in the hospital, with each slice being a month. The most significant areas are deaths from diseases. The two smaller regions are deaths from combat, or other causes (accidents, natural causes).

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Florence Nightingale Polor Chart on the Causes of Mortality: Criema War 1855–56

In the end, the War Office’s administrative department was restructured because of her, which included the creation of a Royal Commission for the Health of the Army in 1857. But it wasn’t because she simply had data. Her rebel nature added something extra; passion, energy, and commitment, to driving change, since just five years before the Crimean War, there was ample evidence in the medical establishment about death from infections in hospitals due to lack of cleanliness. But passion, energy, and commitment were missing.

The tragedy of a Quant who was not a Rebel

M eet Ignaz Semmelweis. He was an establishment Hungarian physician, an insider, and a doctor who discovered in 1847, five years before the Crimean War, that the rate of often-fatal puerperal fever declined through the usage of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. He made the connection between cleanliness and in-hospital death from diseases you catch at the hospital, what’s known clinically as nosocomial infections.

What Semmelweis suggested as a solution was the simple practice of washing hands with chlorinated lime solutions. He was working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where the doctors’ wards had a mortality rate three times that of midwives’ wards. After adopting this hand-washing change, mortality reduced to below 1%.

You’d think others would immediately use this new finding, but it didn’t happen.

Others knew Semmelweis’s work in the medical establishment, but via his students’ written reports, as he didn’t promote his own findings. He had the data, and sometimes he spoke to people about it. However, without having an inner rebel streak, he never fully seized the day, as reports are he wasn’t willing to face the onslaught of dissenters. And boy did he meet them. Unfortunately, Semmelweis lacked the rebel constitution needed to face that gauntlet.

When doctors learned of how he framed their culpability and his suggestions about hand washing, many were offended at the idea that they, as a gentleman, should be told they needed to wash their hands. It was a major personal insult not just implying, but outright pointing the finger, that they as MD’s were causing the deaths of their patients due to their uncleanliness. They mocked and shunned him for it. He withdrew, as he didn’t have the passion, energy, and commitment of a Viking or rebel, to fight for and defend his findings. He gave up.

But then, about seven years later, Nightingale came along with her rebel disposition combined with quant thinking and the world change.

I think Bill Gillquist would have liked her, not just because of her rebel streak but also because she knew what she was doing was right. She didn’t just believe in it. And like the pitch to the Honeywell executives, I didn’t just believe in what I was proposing. I knew it to be the right thing to do.

But is there a difference between believing and knowing something? Bill would have said “You betcha”. Let’s dive into that in the next chapter.

Click here to go to Chapter 2.

Written by

Rebel who’s a quant; CEO / P&L from $0/start-up to $300M+; 6 time CMO, including two billion-dollar-plus; founding team of 3 award-winning startups.

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