The Inner Game of Data

February 07, 2022 by Barry Hutt

For several years now, I have had the privilege to work with numerous companies that strive to improve people, processes, and technologies related to engineering data. Through this continuous learning, I have realized that one of the biggest challenges for companies is "cognitive inertia," not processes and technologies. Allow me to explain.

"As described in Newtonian physics, the term "inertia" refers to the fact that, in the absence of external resistance, a moving object will keep moving in the same direction. This word has also been used across multiple fields as a metaphor to describe related characteristics of human behavior. For example, in management and organization science, the expression "cognitive inertia" describes the phenomenon that managers might fail to reevaluate a situation even in the face of change." (Huff et al., 1992; Reger and Palmer, 1996; Hodgkinson, 1997; Tripsas and Gavetti, 2000)

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Today's trend is for engineers and their teams to find better ways to use data to speed up the R&D process and create better products. Their company's livelihood depends on it. Making a self-driving car is a great example. Yet, I am constantly amazed when I see world-class companies using a figurative pack of mules to plow their 100-acre farm when it comes to data! I have found that the biggest barrier to making data a first-class citizen is not about people, processes, and technology. Instead, the enemy is cognitive inertia. What do I mean by this? In the case of an engineer and their team, they most likely have a well-known methodology to analyze data. (Often involving a spreadsheet or a napkin!) Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that better methods can speed innovation, the leadership team or engineers themselves resist. 

Change management is an age-old problem; migrating to a new process with new technologies can represent a big change. The management teams are met with cognitive inertia and a long list of reasons why new methods and technologies will not work. So, instead, they work harder, and the harder they work, the farther behind they get.

The most successful organizations I work with have a leader that is open to stepping back, looking at the bigger picture, and saying there must be a better way. They ask questions like, how are we going to keep up with the speed of the market? How do we incorporate the latest technologies into our product to create more value? What role can data play to speed up innovation? They turn why into why not? Let's begin the journey to a better way; your company's survival may depend on it!

(Huff et al., 1992Reger and Palmer, 1996Hodgkinson, 1997Tripsas and Gavetti, 2000). In medical studies, “therapeutic inertia” or “clinical inertia” describe the failure of health care providers to intensify therapy when treatment goals are unattained (Phillips et al., 2001Okonofua et al., 2006). In sociology, “social inertia” depicts the resistance to change or the (excess) stability of relationships in societies or social groups (Bourdieu, 1985). In psychology, the “inertia effect” describes individuals' reluctance to reduce their confidence in a decision following disconfirming information (Pitz and Reinhold, 1968). The concept of “psychological inertia” has been proposed to describe the tendency to maintain the status-quo (Gal, 2006). Suri et al. (2013) speak of “patient inertia” to describe the phenomenon that many patients stick to inferior options or fail to initiate treatment even after the diagnosis of a medical problem.

Summing up, the concept of inertia has been used to describe many different phenomena related to a resistance to change. The existence of these phenomena has been linked to status-quo bias (Samuelson and Zeckhauser, 1988Ritov and Baron, 1992), described as the tendency to maintain the defaults either by repeating a decision or avoiding action. So far, however, our understanding of the processes underlying inertia in decision making is rather limited. In the present study, we aim to contribute to this understanding by focusing on a particular facet of inertia, which we term “decision inertia:” the tendency to repeat a previous choice, regardless of its outcome, in a subsequent decision. We investigate whether this tendency significantly influences active decision making and explore the psychological processes behind it using a belief-updating task.