The Benefits of Ignoring When Executives Misunderstand Artificial Intelligence

By Bill Franks, Jan 10, 2019

With the hype surrounding Artificial Intelligence (AI) today, almost everyone in the analytics and data science space has been asked about AI by their business partners. Unfortunately, during these conversations it often becomes apparent that the business person really doesn’t have a clue what AI really is or what AI is best able to solve. The initial reaction by many analytics and data science professional is to correct the business person and try to set them straight. As explained here, that approach can be counterproductive.


It happens all the time… You’re having a discussion with a business executive about a current project and suddenly the exec gets quite animated. After expressing how much AI is of interest to him or her, the exec excitedly lays out a current business problem for you and then asks the question, “Can you use AI to solve this problem for me?” You quickly realize that the problem has nothing whatsoever to do with AI and would best (and very easily) be solved with other, more basic techniques. How do you respond?

A few months back, I was speaking with a friend who said that he will try to educate the exec as to why AI isn’t really applicable in that situation and what other approach is more appropriate. I expressed to my friend my concern that going that route is a challenging path to take for a couple of reasons.


Sure, correcting the exec sounds like the right thing to do. However, your job isn’t to make sure everyone fully understands the way algorithms work. Rather, your job is to help your organization get the most value possible through the use of algorithms. Furthermore, it is your job, not a business executive’s, to know what algorithms are available and when to use each of them. The business executive, on the other hand, owns the business problems that you must address.

From an academic perspective, it seems correct to set the executive straight. However, from both a political and business impact perspective you can only hurt yourself. The executive has initiated a discussion about a current business problem and how you and your team can help solve it. That is a terrific thing - he or she is excited by the prospect of using analytics to improve business performance. By correcting executives, you’ll just make alienate them and they may well shut the discussion down. Worse, they may decide not to begin a discussion with you at all the next time they have a problem.


Overlook the executive’s misunderstanding of what AI is for the time being. Instead, focus on the business problem that’s been posed. In the end, the executive really only cares about having that problem solved. The discussion may be in context of AI because that’s what’s on the executive’s mind, but never forget that they really just want their problem solved. Think about it… Would the executive be happy if you used AI where it didn’t make sense and you didn’t solve the problem? Of course not! Would they be happy if you solved the problem but didn’t use AI to do it? You bet!

The key, therefore, is to embrace the opportunity to engage in the conversation about the executive’s problem. Be happy that you are the one they’ve come to and show your enthusiasm for the discussion. Embrace the opportunity to get involved and solve the problem while resisting the urge to correct the executive’s semantics. Stress that you are confident that you can solve the problem and that you’ll certainly consider AI as you lay out a solution, but you will explore other methods that might be just as effective and could possibly be deployed more quickly. The executive will be happy, your relationship will grow as a result, and your team will put some points on the board.


When you return with your solution, don’t lie to the executive and tell them you that AI was part of the solution if it was not. Simply say, “I’ve got some terrific results to share with you. We didn’t end up needing to use AI, but we got exactly what you need. Let’s walk through the benefits this solution can deliver.” The executive will then be focused on the results and really won’t care that you didn’t use AI (if it is even recalled that AI was requested in the first place).

The moral of the story is to accept any opportunity you can get to engage your business partners in a discussion about their business problems. Don’t get hung up on the semantics they use or how they misstate how algorithms work. Simply focus on helping them and being a good partner. Let them call it AI or anything else they want to call it. As long as you can solve the problem, that’s all they’ll really care about. And you can certainly tell them you’ll explore more advanced approaches, including AI, as the current solution evolves or when they bring additional opportunities.

Pouring cold water on their excitement up front will only sour your relationship and lead to your team and the broader organization missing opportunities in the future. This same approach of not correcting executives when it isn’t necessary can be used in the future for the next hyped up topic as well.

About the author

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Bill Franks is IIA’s Chief Analytics Officer, where he provides perspective on trends in the analytics and big data space and helps clients understand how IIA can support their efforts and improve analytics performance. His focus is on translating complex analytics into terms that business users can understand and working with organizations to implement their analytics effectively. His work has spanned many industries for companies ranging from Fortune 100 companies to small non-profits.

Franks is the author of the book Taming The Big Data Tidal Wave (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., April, 2012). In the book, he applies his two decades of experience working with clients on large-scale analytics initiatives to outline what it takes to succeed in today’s world of big data and analytics. Franks’ second book The Analytics Revolution (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., September, 2014) lays out how to move beyond using analytics to find important insights in data (both big and small) and into operationalizing those insights at scale to truly impact a business. He is an active speaker who has presented at dozens of events in recent years. His blog, Analytics Matters, addresses the transformation required to make analytics a core component of business decisions.

Franks earned a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Statistics from Virginia Tech and a Master’s degree in Applied Statistics from North Carolina State University. More information is available at