You have no doubt watched the classic Christmas film Scrooge a million times but try watching it this year anew with your Making Sense of Big Data hat on. Is data analytics a form of time travel? You betcha! Take a wild guess where data analysts are most often traveling to?
Written by social change advocate Charles Dickens in 1843, what I love about the Christmas Carol story and this 1951 film adaptation in particular is that it contains so many themes that are relevant today. It can be viewed as a story about poverty and injustice, redemption and transformation, the demise of industrial capitalism, ghosts, greed and morality, the reenvisioning of philanthropy, etc.
What Dickens originally had in mind in 1843 was an advocacy-oriented report regarding the state of the poor and the need for change in 19th century England. Instead of doing a report he decided to create a softer, much more sticky and enduring advocacy, in the form of the Christmas Carol story.
We could not help but notice that miraculously the structure of this classic film maps directly to our SenseWHEN lens that we often use in transformation work with organizational leaders. In SenseWHEN we ask: When is the picture that you want to create? Are you seeking to create pictures of Yesterday, Today or Tomorrow? In the context of the film this is the equivalent to visitation from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Thinking business school case studies for a moment, one could say that Ebenezer Scrooge was in fact an organizational leader. In the film we get to see him embark on what turns out to be a journey to create a new personal and organizational strategy. He takes the journey unwillingly but perhaps what is most important to take note of in the film is where he ends up in relation to what the data was projecting.
Of course from a cinematic perspective the pictures seen in the film of Yesterday (Christmas Past), Today (Christmas Present) and Tomorrow (Christmas Yet to Come) all look the same visually. In real life, real world we would recognize that two of those views, Yesterday and Today, could be / would be based on data and one would be a Tomorrow prediction based on existing patterns. The picture of Christmas Yet to Come was, on Ebenezer’s behalf, a product of 1843 predictive analytics in action.
This is beautifully remarkable when we consider that our own recent study of two centuries of data visualizations showed that 98% were pictures of Yesterday and or Today. Out of almost 1000 data visualizations in the study only 2% were attempts at pictures of Tomorrow. Here in this 1951 film we can see not only a picture of Tomorrow but also coming into view is what role it played in the formulation of Ebenezer’s strategy.
We noticed that the future picture that was based on data projections turns out to be not the future that comes true for Ebenezer. In a wonderfully entertaining way the story makes clear that there are multiple futures possible.
After seeing the picture of Tomorrow based on behavioral projections, the film shows Scrooge waking up in a state of enlightenment to begin immediately redesigning his future in real time starting immediately on Christmas morning. The future that Ebenezer now has in mind for himself and his organization is quite opposite to the future that was based on projecting patterns from Yesterday and Today into the future.
In this sense the story brings into focus a magical juncture that is known to exist by many of us doing generative future work. It is a moment that occurs after the three SenseWHEN views have appeared and been absorbed. In the film we see Scrooge in that magic moment essentially stepping through a doorway or gateway rejecting one future and embracing the possibility of designing another. It is a beautiful thing.
Remarkably we see very similar patterns (without the ghosts) of reflection, analysis, generation, recombination, reformulation, gateway in much of the futuring work that we do with organizations today.
Rather than viewing data as prescriptive of future outcomes it is more often being used as fuel to inspire and create “straw man” scenarios, which may or may not ultimately be embraced as part of future design. For many enlightened leaders the purpose of data based scenarios is less about prescribing and more about informing possibilities.
While more and better data makes for better future projections the underlying physics of the universe have not changed much since the time of Dickens. Whether we all like it or not, the future remains one step ahead of us.
If Ebenezer had mistaken the data projected future as the one and only option, if he took it as prescriptive rather than informative his transformation and that of his organization would not have been realized, at least not in the particularly positive way that comes into view as the film ends with Scrooge walking into his newly designed future. Lots to think about there.
Until someone takes the link down you can check out the 1951 film starring Alastir Sim as Scrooge for free on YouTube.