Digital Analysts: Three Tips for Leading Data-Driven Change

Like it or not you are a change agent if you work in the field of analytics. If you think about the role of an analytics professional, change should be a natural consequence of your work. Focus less on that, and concentrate more on this. Stop doing that, and do more of this. Spend less there, and invest more here. In fact, your insights into the business’s inner workings and its performance put you in a privileged position to alter its trajectory for the better.

Unfortunately, insights don’t always translate into action. Analysts often don’t have as much impact on their organizations as they could have. One of the key problems is people don’t like change—individuals, teams, and organizations all resist change. When each analysis recommendation requires some form of change—small or large—resistance can be a major problem for analysts. If you feel as though it isn’t your problem when people fail to act on your brilliant analyses, you’re in denial. Your analysis journey is incomplete and unfulfilled without action.

If you diagnose what’s going on in these situations, you’ll discover a number of reasons why meaningful insights go nowhere, good ideas are shot down, and solid recommendations aren’t adopted. Here are some of the factors that might be impeding change at your organization:

  • Missing skills. The change might require new skills, processes, or tools that individuals or teams don’t currently possess.
  • Loss of status. It might entail a loss of control, budget, or resources, which may reduce a manager’s power or authority.
  • Fear of unknown. Individuals and teams may be hesitant to embrace an unfamiliar approach or unknown environment where their past experience and historical data is no longer relevant.
  • Extra work. It might lead to more work or unwanted responsibilities for particular individuals or teams.
  • Ego hit. Going in a new direction might make past decisions or investments look bad or wrong, putting people in a defensive position to protect their reputation and past actions.
  • Lack of trust. People may not believe or trust the data supporting the change and as a result it doesn’t trump their own intuition or data for maintaining the status quo.

While there are different reasons for resisting change, they all point to avoiding different forms of potential pain. Interestingly, most people will claim they want to improve things, which inherently means a change for the better needs to occur. Organizations wouldn’t invest in analytics if the status quo is fine. No matter how exceptional your company, department, or team is there’s usually always room for improvement. Then why is acting on insights such a struggle for most companies? I think writer Sydney J. Harris was on to something when he made the following observation:

Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better.

Sydney J. Harris, American Journalist

Most people would love to avoid changing anything they do and magically improve results. Personally, I’d love to lose 15-20 pounds without lifting a finger, but I know I’ll need to change both my diet and exercise regime to achieve this outcome. Even though I might want to reduce my weight and realize it will take some effort to achieve, I still might lack the required motivation to change. I need a compelling reason to make the necessary changes and overcome the inevitable pain (pangs for chocolate).

So how do you overcome this resistance, especially if it’s shaped by an internal culture that isn’t necessarily data-driven? Ideally, you have an executive sponsor who has your back. However, if that’s not the case (and your job title doesn’t begin with “chief” or “vice”), you won’t be able to use top-down power or authority to push change. Most analytics professionals will fall into the small “L” category of leadership. Therefore, you have to lead in other ways. Here are three suggestions for how you can more effectively steer your organization from your analyst cubicle:

1. Create a sense of urgency

If you’re familiar with Kotter’s eight-step process for leading change, the first step falls squarely into your wheelhouse—create a sense of urgency. Even though you’re not a senior executive, the one thing you should be able to wield like no one else is data. If you use the data to craft a compelling reason for your stakeholders to act, you’ll be able to influence more change.

Knowing that change can be painful, you need to understand what might hold teams back from acting on your recommendations. They often won’t change until the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing. Alternatively, the pleasure (benefit) from changing needs to significantly offset the pain (cost) of changing. Without establishing a greater sense of urgency such as identifying a significant gap, stakeholders won’t be motivated to act on your insights.

Think of the arrows as “greater than” signs. For example, to drive change the pain or perceived pain of not changing needs to exceed the pain of changing.

One effective tactic for generating urgency is through monetizing the potential outcome of your recommendations. Once you affix a dollar figure to solving a problem or seizing an opportunity, it’s amazing how it grabs attention and increases the likelihood of action. Not everything can be monetized, but don’t give up before you’ve even tried. In a future blog post, I’ll share some different tips for monetizing your analysis findings.

2. Blame the environment, not the people

One of our human tendencies is to blame people for their actions (or inaction) instead of their situation. You might see people outwardly resist change but not fully understand what’s influencing or shaping their attitudes and behaviors. Their environment might actually be what’s preventing them from changing. If you sense environmental factors may be making people resistant to change, evaluate how you can make change easier and resistance harder.

Some environmental considerations might be things that you can influence to drive the necessary change. For example, the lack of familiarity with a new analytics tool might cause some hesitation among marketers in using and trusting the data. A training session that is tailored to their specific role and concerns might alleviate data trust issues and open their minds to how its deeper insights can be used to improve their marketing campaigns.

3. Highlight what’s working

If you’re familiar with Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Switch” (required reading for any digital analyst) they talk about how you need to find and promote the “bright spots.” As an analyst, you can become overly focused on what’s broken or not working. In certain situations, it might make sense to turn your attention to what is working and understand why it is. Often when a campaign, channel, website, app, or team is performing well, everyone is usually happy—no one is demanding to know why it’s doing well. Your analysis focus usually always shifts to what’s underperforming. However, by better understanding the bright spots you can potentially shed light on what’s wrong with the problem areas. For example, if your organization struggles with regularly using data, you might try to find a manager or team that is successful with data. By determining what they are doing right, you can share the lessons they learned and use them as an example to inspire and guide others.

The great thing about highlighting bright spots is they are internal success stories. They can’t be dismissed with a not-invented-here mentality because they’re homegrown. If for whatever reason you’re unable to isolate any bright spots, you’ll need to focus on building internal momentum through a series of quick wins (create the bright spots). In the beginning, you might need to concentrate your efforts on working with less strategic teams that are willing, flexible, and able to make changes. Once you’ve built up creditability internally, your successes can be leveraged to attract attention from more strategic groups and open doors to greater optimization opportunities.

As a digital analyst, you need to help foster a willingness to experiment and adopt changes in your organization. It’s in your best interest because as Charles Darwin noted:

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.

Charles Darwin, English Naturalist

At the tactical level, you might be able to persuade someone to edit ad copy, fix broken links, or adjust the placement of a call-to-action button. While you can still run into resistance with even these low-level actions, it’s nothing compared to what you’ll experience if you’re dealing with more strategic recommendations (e.g., shift budget between marketing channels, terminate partnerships, etc.). With the stakes being greater so too is the push back. Rather than flying under the radar with small tactical improvements, your strategic recommendations can face intense scrutiny and heavy opposition. A solid understanding of your audience and careful preparation are essential to your success.

You’re only truly effective as an analyst if you can influence change—big or small. Great insights can achieve nothing unless they’re acted upon. Today organizations need more than just smart analysts; they require intelligent, data-savvy change agents. Change at your company doesn’t have to wait for someone with power or authority—it can start with you leading data-driven change today. I hope the three tips shared in this article will help you as you use data to guide your organization down the right paths. Good luck!

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