I was having dinner with my friend Peter Hill last week. We were talking about how difficult it is at times to convince business leaders that their key performance indicators (KPIs) are, in fact, not key and do not measure performance. As is his wont Peter summed it up with an obtuse and comical phrase. He said, “It is like teaching algebra to cows”

In other words, KPIs is a subject which is seen as being complex and worth the effort to understand to those who know it and not even in the realm of thought processes by those who do not.

These metaphorical cows exist everywhere in our daily lives. At sometime or other, colleagues, family, regulators, teachers, pupils or even our bank manager has reacted to what we are saying as a cow might to a treatise on algebra.

Hugh Macfarlane from MathMarketing puts it less obtusely, when he talks about people in a sales context, being unaware and untroubled. That is, the sales prospect is unaware they have a problem and therefore, untroubled by the problem. Sometimes they may be aware but are still untroubled because in their prioritised list of personal and work issues, the problem is ranked lowly.

In a sales context, the unaware and untroubled prospect will not buy. An aware and untroubled prospect will not buy. An aware and troubled prospect may buy.

This notion of unaware and untroubled people stretches well beyond sales.

Take, for instance, the young child who runs across the busy road chasing a ball. Their attention is focused on the ball, unaware and untroubled by the dangers of being hit by a car.

Or a sales manager focused on hitting this month?’s targets, who “sells in” to distributors who exclusively stock their brand, being unaware or, at least, untroubled that the stock will be discounted in the future by the distributor to quit stock they did not really want.

So, in a world where we are overloaded by data and have little time to assimilate new data and make it into worthwhile information, how do we make people aware and troubled, to use Hugh’?s phrasing?

The human mind is a filter. It filters data it receives based on previous experiences. Some of the experiences are felt more recently than others, some are more frequent and some have high emotional significance. The experiences fitting these three categories are most often the primary filters.

To cut through and make people aware and troubled we must, therefore, either link to their recent or frequent experiences or tap an emotional tag to a previous experience. A fourth way is to create a new emotional experience.

How does this work in practice?

Consider safety training. Most people, if they were honest, would say that attending safety training is a bore. A facts and figures approach coupled with a set of processes and an exhortation to report unsafe acts and unsafe conditions typical of much safety training strikes a chord for a week. It strikes a chord because people are aware their boss wants them to care about safety. It resonates with their experiences that pleasing the boss is important and has good consequences. But after a week or so, that resonance disappears under the day-to-day needs of getting your job done and pleasing the boss that way.

Safety training that includes a shock factor, thereby creating a new emotional experience or connecting with a previous experience of emotional significance has a much longer lasting impact. Gory photos and videos, testimonials from people who have experienced a severe incident, preferably with visible consequences, are all effective in making people aware of safety and emotionally troubled. Blended with a focus on the implications for the family left behind and a persistent, consistent and insistent campaign led by the boss to report and discuss the consequence of unsafe acts and unsafe conditions, this kind of training has a significant impact on safety awareness. It troubles a significant proportion of people.

Another example I come across often is poor recruitment. Managers who recruit are often untroubled and unaware of their poor practices. They are much more aware and troubled by their high staff turnover and low morale. Yet they continue to recruit poorly with interviews being based on gut feel rather than a clear understanding of how to discriminate the kind of human being required for a particular role.

Convincing managers who recruit poorly to change their ways is doubly difficult as any demonstration of a better way takes at least six months to be truly noticeable. Case studies can help to convince them, linking in with their previous experiences. Most people, however, will still believe that their methods mirror the case study. Only a persistent campaign of case studies, survey results from other managers recruiting in the same industry and perhaps a pilot with remuneration tied to recruitment and training cost reductions seems to cut through.

Teaching algebra to cows is not only difficult, it is quite probably, impossible. So do not try. First, you must teach your cow how to speak the language of algebra. Give them examples. Show them how third parties they respect have taken on the language of algebra and have benefited. Even better, make them feel that they are falling behind by not understanding the language of algebra.

Then, and only then, will our cows be aware enough of algebra to be troubled by what they do not know and be willing to listen to find out more.