How Fearless Are You in Your Analytics Journey?

Would you describe yourself as a risk-taker? Fearless? Would you even go so far as jumping out of a plane on the journey to digital transformation?

Me neither.

And yet, if you are a Chief Data Officer, you are a trail blazer. You are fearless in your belief in the power of analytics to improve business, even more so in a digital world. Data has always been important, but that value increases exponentially in a digital world with new ways to personalize customer experience, optimize the supply chain, and operate more efficiently.

The CDO role is still relatively new in the industry, developing only over the last five years in an almost thirty-year-old business intelligence and data warehousing market. Many of you have been in this role for less than two years. You may have risen to this role via the IT organization, perhaps as a BI director. Others have arrived via the line of business, recognizing the role of data in digital transformation efforts.

I have likened my joining ThoughtSpot to jumping out of a plane, unsure of whether or not I have a parachute or knowing for sure that I will figure out how to use it. My new boss didn’t agree with this analogy as he sees such an adventure as thrill-seeking. I, like you, have a vision for data and analytics to enable business success. I, like you, have a new role, a job description that we are shaping as we go but that is very much like that tandem skydiving instructor.

Rebel or Rule Follower?

I’m not thrill seeking. My life is exciting enough, thank you very much. And I’m risk averse. We know from Myers-Briggs’ personality assessments and resumes that most people in IT are risk averse too. Business people, on the other hand, are more willing to take risks, if the opportunity and potential gains justify the risks. In this way, I like the way Harvard University professor and author Francesa Gino describes these people as Rebel Talent. It’s not rule-breaking for annoyance or contrarian’s sake, but more for a passion in their work. Perspective and a need to see the world from a different view often drive their rebellion.

I’ve always thought of myself as a rule follower. Ditto for my daughter, who recently jumped out of a plane. Literally. Without permission. Yes, I wanted to kill her. Or ground her. Tough to do when she’s a college student and an adult. As a marine scientist, she had a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the sea from a different perspective while interning in Namibia. She described the first few seconds where you are indeed free-falling, and she held on to the tandem instructor with an enormous degree of trust.

No doubt, you as a CDO or potential CDO are doing the same. You are carving a new path within the organization that involves risk, trust, and change. There will be days when you feel like you are free-falling and you’d rather revert back to your comfort zone, maybe immersed only in existing technology or acting as the guardian of data.  Don’t do it. It’s only when you combine technology while addressing culture change that you will get to that beautiful transformation.  Culture is like your parachute. Failing to evolve and embrace it for any digital transformation effort will lead to disastrous results.

Five Fatal Flaws in Developing a Data-Driven Culture

Of the countless organizations I speak to each year, culture remains the toughest obstacle to becoming data-driven. Organizations have invested millions in first generation data warehouses and BI tools. Many are in the midst of modernizing their data strategies and analytics tools portfolios to include data lakes and self-service tools.

Unfortunately, too many business people see these efforts as more disruption for technology’s sake, with little alignment to what drives the business. Even when a transformation leader has painted a powerful vision of digital transformation, failing to adapt the culture to this vision can undermine those efforts to extract measurable value.

So what cultural stumbling blocks are holding enterprises back? Some of the biggest culture barriers:

  • Fear. Fear of failure and risk avoidance have as much to do with personality as with incentives. How can you possibly move the IT organization forward, when IT is historically- and still often- measured on least-cost to serve? Rewarding failures is rarely part of the measures of success, and yet, it is so necessary for innovation. As a leader in transformation, you must give permission for people to take calculated risks.
  • Distrust. Business stake holders have been disheartened with long-wait times to get any meaningful data from IT or a beleaguered BICC; they’d rather charge ahead on their own. Past promises of business-IT partnership have had mediocre success. Why should business people trust IT to guide them in this process? Further, some people fear sharing and improving access to data as it may be used for punishment rather than improvement. Experts in the BICC may distrust efforts to evolve to self-service analytics as just another way to get rid of them. Re-skilling and up-skilling traditional report writers to data storytellers must be part of the change management process to foster trust.
  • Individual Pride. Pride of ownership is an important trait when you are designing and building systems, but does the culture put the organization ahead of the individual when it requires shutting down such systems? This challenge of individual pride often prevents the BICC and IT from recognizing the value of so-called “shadow IT” groups. Sometimes a line of business can demonstrate a new way of leveraging data and analytics in a more agile way. Borrow and imitate the best ideas, no matter where they were incubated.
  • Preference for the Status Quo. Change is hard and a stress when people are just trying to keep up with daily demands. I do worry that the frenetic pace of change in the analytics industry is a challenge for most organizations to effectively absorb. But the pace of business demands greater agility. Customers can now churn at a click and a swipe. Fostering a culture that embraces change must start with thinking about “what’s in it for me,” or WIFM. If you are throwing technology out there without framing it in terms of how it will make life better for that individual, they will resist change. Beyond identifying the WIFM for the data-driven converts, recruit and reward people with a can-do-attitude who view change as an exciting opportunity.
  • Gut-feel. Do I really need to list gut-feel culture as a barrier? Indeed, it seems foreign to me to try to have any argument without data. If we debate climate change around the dinner table, I ask for the data. Gender pay gap? Show me the data. NFL draft choices and I ask about stats. I’m emotional and intuitive, but data grounds my arguments. I see, though, in movies like Moneyball or this NFL article how there are some hold outs that think a gut knows better. Maybe that once was true when most businesses knew their customers personally, but certainly not in a digital world. In this regard, only gut plus data knows better.

Ready, Set, Jump!

Culture is a hard, slow thing to change. Addressing these challenges starts with you, the fearless leader of transformation. Take a risk. Rebel against the status quo.

How do you walk the walk instead of just talking the talk? Here’s how to start:

  1. Take a baseline. Assess the culture today and identify the biggest barriers.
  2. Change incentives. Evaluate the incentives that undermine transformation. Are you evaluating people only for cost? Do you reward risk? Is time allotted for learning new skills?
  3. Connect. Do you lead from a corner office or do you connect in the cafeteria, actively listening to concerns from people at all levels?
  4. Mix up the people. Sometimes culture change does mean changing people, whether embedding change agents in new parts of the organization or hiring new talent. Your best people may not report directly to you but will be your champions sprinkled throughout the organization and whot share your view of the future.
  5. Network. One industry veteran told me the role of the CDO will be an awful, uphill battle the next few years. Maybe. I know enough CDOs and analytics leaders who are loving their jobs and feel re-invigorated. If internal politics and organizational lethargy are getting you down, then network. Compare notes with other leaders to share the burden and secrets to success.

I’ll be right there with you on this journey.

About Cindi Howson

Chief Data Strategy Officer, ThoughtSpot

Cindi Howson is the Chief Data Strategy Officer at ThoughtSpot. She is a world renowned BI and analytics expert with 20+ years’ experience. Cindi was previously a Gartner Vice President in data and analytics, leading the analytics and BI Magic Quadrant, with research in data and AI for good, NLP/BI Search, and augmented analytics. Prior to this, she was founder of BI Scorecard, a resource for in-depth product reviews based on exclusive hands-on testing, contributor to Information Week, and the author of several books including: Successful Business Intelligence: Unlock the Value of BI & Big Data and SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.0: The Complete Reference. She served as The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) faculty member for more than decade. She consults with customers on analytics and BI strategy, tool selection, and best practices. Prior to founding BI Scorecard, Howson was a manager at Deloitte & Touche and a BI standards leader for Dow Chemical. She has an MBA from Rice University and a BA from the University of Maryland. Cindi serves on the board for Rutgers University Big Data Certificate program. She has been recognized as one of the top analytics and BI influencers by Onalytica, Simplilearn, Solutions Review and others industry watchers.