Recently, SAS and Teradata announced an interesting new contest to recognize “top analytics professionals who are driving big value for their organizations” and will feature these individuals as “analytic superheroes” on a special microsite. As I’ve talked to various people about my book, several individuals have confused superheroes with action heroes. This isn’t surprising because unless you’re Sheldon Cooper or one of his geek posse from “The Big Bang Theory“, you probably wouldn’t realize there’s any distinction. However, as I prepared to write my new book, the subtle differences between the two types of heroes became increasingly clear and important. I’d like to clarify what those differences are (I realize I’m arguing semantics, but humor me for a moment) and at the same time explain why I think it’s better to be an analytics action hero than an analytics superhero.
How are action heroes different from superheroes?
Growing up in the eighties, I consumed a steady diet of comic books (Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman/Dark Knight) and action-adventure films/shows (Indiana Jones, Mad Max, James Bond, Rambo, and anything with ninjas). While both types of heroes are known for their bravery and commitment to justice, there are some key characteristics that distinguish action heroes from superheroes.
Action heroes are ordinary people who prevail under extraordinary circumstances. They overcome any challenges thrown their way by leveraging their unique talents, training, and experience. On the other hand, superheroes lean on their superhuman powers or abilities – super-strength, x-ray vision, super-speed, super-intelligence – to achieve their aims. While you can aspire to be better and more like action heroes – honing your skills, perfecting your approach, gaining more experience, etc. – you can never attain the superheroes’ powers or abilities. No radioactive spider-bites are in your future. Your greatness will be defined by your innate talent and good, old-fashioned hard work.
Digital Analysts: Despite how smart or talented you think you are, you don’t possess superhuman abilities (I know it’s hard to believe). Sure, it’s a nice compliment to call someone a superhero, but it could actually stunt their development. Once someone thinks they’re a superhero, they won’t want to tamper with their image. They may avoid taking risks and exploring new methods or areas – just sticking to what worked in the past. An analytics action hero seeks to drive action and value so they are constantly learning and trying new approaches.
Action heroes are the underdogs or longshots – they’re never the favorites or frontrunners like the superheroes are. In the films, most people second-guess the action heroes every step of the way, but step back whenever a superhero appears. Whereas superheroes just need to show up, action heroes are constantly proving and reconfirming their value (that might explain all the movie sequels).
Digital Analysts: Most of the time you are the underdog or longshot. You have to constantly prove your value to your organization through analyses and recommendations that drive cost savings, higher revenue, or greater customer satisfaction. Your success will be typically defined by several small (but increasingly bigger) wins, not a single earth-shattering victory. Never rest on your laurels.
Action heroes are simply more pragmatic and efficient than superheroes. For example, MacGyver uses odds and ends such as toothpaste and duct tape to build the tools or instruments for his missions. Many people have access to the same items and as a result his techniques and strategies can be replicated by other individuals. MacGyver is also very selective and efficient in his approach to each problem. On the other hand, Superman may be able to melt an iceberg from the North Pole with his heat vision to extinguish a raging forest fire, but this technique isn’t necessarily efficient and won’t work for anyone else – not even another superhero such as Aquaman or Captain America who don’t share the same super powers.
Digital Analysts: Even greater value can be generated when analysis techniques can be shared and replicated by others. If you’re the only one who knows how to perform your analyses, you may have greater job security but ultimately you’re falling short of the impact you could be having across the organization by not inspiring other analytics action heroes. In addition, as an analyst you need to choose carefully from the 20+ different things you could do and focus on what’s the most efficient and effective thing you can do.
Action heroes are more disciplined because they have significantly less room for error than superheroes do. Because they are not immortal and more vulnerable, one misstep can be costly or fatal to action heroes. They also don’t possess godlike abilities to quickly recover from their mistakes. As a result, they need to be more cautious, attentive, and calculated in their approach. On the other hand, superheroes don’t have to be as disciplined for the simple reason they are rarely in any real danger and can use brute force with their super powers to recover from any serious miscalculations. They also don’t need to worry as much about how their actions affect other stakeholders (less accountability).
Digital Analysts: When you’re trying to establish trust between you and your stakeholders, you want to be careful and attentive with your analyses. Nothing destroys your credibility faster than sloppy analysis.
Action heroes are generally are less pretentious and more genuine. For example, action heroes aren’t constantly hiding behind some secret identity (maybe just an occasional disguise or two). They lead regular lives with spouses, children, parents, and colleagues that they return to after each adventure. This human aspect adds valuable context and keeps them grounded. On the other hand, superheroes lead a double-life – one as a costumed superhero (Wonder Woman, Superman) and another under an everyday alias (Diane Prince, Clark Kent). People are then left to wonder who these superheroes really are and which persona is fake or contrived. When you add flamboyant, brightly-colored tights to the mix, you also get the impression that they’re mainly focused on promoting their personal brand. Being super is about being superior to other people – exclusivity. To paraphrase Syndrome, the villain in Pixar’s “The Incredibles”: When everybody is super then nobody is super.
Digital Analysts: Just because you expertly wield the data, be careful that you don’t come across as a data snob to your internal stakeholders – people that you’ll need on your side to be truly successful. The goal is not to always look smart or be right but to drive change that improves your business. Understand your internal stakeholders’ needs and make them the heroes.
While I’ve been able to highlight some of the key differences between superheroes and action heroes, you’ll definitely find there are heroes that bend or break my criteria. For example, I’d classify Batman and Iron Man as action heroes rather than superheroes because they actually don’t possess any super powers – they’re just augmented by infinitely deep pockets and amazing, non-alien technology (Green Lantern’s extraterrestrial ring makes him a superhero in my book). Ultimately, superheroes are primarily defined by their super powers while action heroes are defined by their actions or accomplishments.
In the context of analytics, I prefer to be an action hero because we need more action from data (small or big data). Being an action hero doesn’t have to be limited to a small, elite group of people with quasi-superhuman abilities and talents. Being a hero doesn’t need to be exclusive, it can be inclusive. Anyone with the right ability, environment, and approach can become an action hero. Lock and load, analytics action heroes!