What is pragmatism, how to develop it, or how to look for it in talent?

Despite good academic qualifications of the workforce, many data initiatives fall short. This usually happens due to a lack of understanding about the operating context.

Pragmatism is about making decisions with ambiguous data by using contextual information.

Pragmatism in popular understanding

Pragmatism can mean multiple things, but in popular understanding it refers to having practical success in initiatives by keeping things “doable”.

It is often associated with keeping things simple, because simple things are more doable.

When we say someone is not pragmatic, we mean that they are doing something which in theory is doable, but in the given context is unlikely to succeed.

Basically, pragmatism means being able to understand your context and operate successfully within its bounds.

Why is pragmatism important in data?

Pragmatism concerns itself with the success of uncertain initiatives. Data concerns itself with the process of modelling and measuring uncertain initiatives.

Pragmatism and data are about making the best use of available information, in a largely uncertain universe.

Because of the large conceptual overlap of the two fields, data allows a pragmatist to shine, and pragmatism helps a data person to deliver ROI.

How do we get pragmatism in data?

Business pragmatism stems from the understanding of the business context. This means that the professionals that are expected to be pragmatic need to be well aware of the business context.

Pragmatism by team design

As with any other skill, pragmatism can be developed much better if your hires are constantly in touch with the context in which they operate.

As in management, contextual knowledge can be specialised or general.

For the specialised level, embedded analysts will be able to take pragmatic decisions in the context they are embedded in.

For the general level, data team managers should be closely integrated with the rest of management to understand department and company capabilities.

Pragmatism at hiring

To gauge the future pragmatism of your hire, you need to gauge the degree of contextual knowledge, the ability to apply it, and the ability to learn it in a new environment.

For measuring degree business understanding, ask them what your business is. They might not nail it, but they should be close to the actual business model.

For measuring the ability to apply contextual knowledge, ask them to come up with a solution to an actual business problem you have. Look for the usage of contextual knowledge and simplicity of solution – Dunning-Krueger effect dictates that someone who is not pragmatic will often underestimate efforts.

For measuring the demonstrated ability to learn a new environment, you can look at their work history to gauge if they are specialists or generalists. You can also ask about previous experiences or learning projects. You want someone who is curious, and who takes responsibility for the outcomes of their initiatives (rather than blaming it on a world they don’t understand).

The pragmatist’s tells

  • Cross domain experience
  • Business focus (studies or past experiences)
  • Previously worked closely with other teams
  • Experience in process improvement
  • Understands your business model and offers sensible solutions
  • Keeps things simple, sees the bigger picture, focuses on goals.

As a professional

To gain more understanding of the business, here are some of the things you can do:

  • Formal education
  • Gain experience by working in the sector you are optimising
  • Work closely with professional from other fields
  • Do generalist work instead of specialist work
  • Find mentorship

In conclusion

Not everybody in your team needs to be pragmatic. However, you need to have at least one person that can do “reality checks” of initiatives. This skill is something that can be created by either team formation, training, or hiring.

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