Building a Team with an Analytic Mindset

You just got the job you’ve been working for—Chief Data Officer. Congratulations! 

It seems like everyone has ideas about what you should do. The CTO knows you need a new technology stack. That should happen first, right? But the CEO just told you in the hallway that you should start by helping Marketing with a current project. They use data more than anyone else, and who knows better than the CEO?

Both of those sounds like good ideas, and you’re anxious to jump in. Both the CTO and CEO are onto something, but before you start scheduling meetings there’s one thing that should take precedence. Something that has to happen before choosing tools or solving problems. 

In fact, it’s the one thing that will really matter years from now when the new tools you choose are getting old and that marketing project is long forgotten.

How do you build an analytic mindset across the company, so that people want to use the tools and data you’re going to implement? Good news—that’s what we’re here to talk about.

How it used to be

Let’s be fair. Many organizations today aren’t much more data-oriented than they were in the 60s. Even Don Draper’s co-workers in Mad Men—who work in what today is a very data-driven business—usually made decisions based on emotion or experience. Despite reporting systems and up-to-date dashboards, the people on the front lines have to be motivated to use then for them to be effective.

50 years ago they had reasonable excuses. IT systems were nascent or non-existent—no computers means limited access to information. Companies were smaller, and it’s easier to manage smaller companies by instinct. And lack of resources and awareness—there weren’t a lot of blogs posts about data-driven decision making 50+ years ago. 

So what changed? All of it, really. 

The Harvard Business review found that the use of data-driven decision making in manufacturing almost tripled between 2005 and 2010. This growth happened primarily in facilities where the four things above had changed the most—modern IT systems, scale, and awareness.

Get CEO Support

Before rushing out to buy an IBM System/360-30 just like Sterling Cooper & Partners, get the boss onboard. It’s estimated that the failure rate of IT projects without executive support is as high as 70%

It’s important to differentiate between active support and passive support. Think of passive support as nodding heads. You describe what you want to do, your CEO nods her head and says, “great idea, make it happen,” and you leave with a warm feeling of support. But passive support won’t keep you out of the 70%.

Fortunately, it’s easy to change passive support to active support. Just ask for something.

  • “We’ll need $600,000 to make this happen. Will you commit the budget?”

  • “I need to hire 3 people to do this. Are you onboard with that?”

  • “I’m going to tell all department heads that they need to submit success numeric criteria for their annual goals before you’ll approve them. Will you support that?”

Partner with cross-functional departments

You’ve got the boss onboard. What’s next?

Keep going down the org chart. Typically, this means recruiting key department heads to your cause. Sales, Marketing, Finance, Operations, and anyone else who should be using data to make better decisions.

You might need to brush up on your sales skills to make this happen, since it’s typically tougher than getting the CEO onboard. After all, the CEO was already halfway there when she decided to staff your position in the first place.  

Never worked in sales? No problem—here’s a simple sales process you can follow to get buy-in from your department heads.

  1. Listen. Ask them what their priorities are, their goals this year, and the biggest challenges they face achieving them.

  2. Help. Tell them about your initiative, but focus on how you can help them with those priorities, goals and challenges.  

  3. Ask for something. Just like with your CEO, asking for something gets them to invest in action and promotes active support. Good asks at this point might be for them to provide a part-time resource to help, or budget support.

  4. Agree to next steps. Odds are good the CMO will move on to the next project as soon as you’ve left his office, so get agreement to follow up actions. Agreement to discuss at your weekly sync meeting, or to attend a steering committee meeting are both valid next steps. Even better, ask them what they see as the next step!

Always ask for data

Creating an analytic mindset requires a cultural change, and those aren’t easy. Fortunately, it’s hard like a marathon, not hard like building a rocket. Each step is relatively simple, it’s doing it for 26.2 miles that’s really challenging.  

What’s the “step” in this analogy? Asking for data, of course. Always ask for data!

  • One of your reports tells you about their new project. Your response: “What data will you use to measure your success?”

  • One of your salespeople says, “I had a great meeting!” Your response: “What data are you using to measure ‘great?’”

  • The Director of Marketing says, “We signed up 100 customers this month!” Your response: “How does that compare to the previous 12 months?”

Share their enthusiasm, but ask for data. Unlike a marathon, you’ll find that the farther you go the easier it gets. People will start bringing data to meetings so that they’re prepared for your question.  

And odds are good that if they’re bringing data to the meeting, they probably looked at it first.  Isn’t that the goal?

Knock down barriers

Despite getting buy-in from all the right people, building a great cross-functional team, and actively working to build a culture that asks for data, success isn’t guaranteed.

Although I’ve worked in small companies before, when I first moved from IBM (400,000 employees at the time) to ThoughtSpot (15 employees at the time) one of my biggest challenges was to stop thinking about “how.”

IBM is a very rich environment. It’s no exaggeration to say that there are hundreds of people in different roles all ready and willing to help out with almost any project. A lot of success at IBM is knowing how to leverage and navigate all those resources and existing processes to get things done.

I’m pretty sure that sometime at the beginning of my ThoughtSpot career I asked Ajeet (our Co-founder and CEO), “How do we do that?” And I’m equally sure that he gave me a quizzical look and replied, “What do you mean how? Just do it!"

Whether your company is 15 people or 500,000, act like a startup. Assume power. Knock down barriers.

There are three major areas to start, places where barriers naturally grow:

  • Access - Do you need access to a person, or to a resource? Assume you already have it—go knock on their door. It might feel more natural to find out who has access or to ask for an introduction, but that’s rarely the most effective path.

  • Tools - Lack of access to tools is frequently cited as a barrier. In some cases you can knock down the barrier by buying a single license, getting a free trial, or moving a license from someone who’s not using it. In many cases, though, this is a red herring. How can you do the job without the tool? At IBM, we had access to almost every tool imaginable. It still took longer to get the job done than at a startup with far fewer resources.

  • Culture - These barriers are always artificial, and created by people. Listen for words like, “We don’t do it that way,” or “That’s not how it’s done.” My advice? Do it anyway.

How do you build an analytic mindset in your team?

Tell us in the comments. After all, going back to how we made decisions on Madison Avenue in the 1960s doesn’t mean that we get to start drinking at work. It just means we’ll make more bad decisions.