Tips for Executives – How to Get the Data You Need

June 1, 2012
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One of the most common complaints that we hear from leaders and executives is that they have “too much data” and “not enough information”. Some examples of what they mean by “too much data” include:

One of the most common complaints that we hear from leaders and executives is that they have “too much data” and “not enough information”. Some examples of what they mean by “too much data” include:

  • Reports that consist of pages and pages of numbers
  • Tables of figures with no overall summary number
  • Charts that are cluttered and confusing
  • Analyses that show a lot of numbers but no “so what” message

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are a few tips that executives can use to get the data they need:

Tip 1: Ask yourself “What information would help me be more effective?”
It may sound selfish, but you should ask yourself “What information would help me be more effective in my job?” This might be information that helps you save your own time, make better decisions, or seize big opportunities.

The Data Thinker

Another way to approach this question is to review the data that you already have available and ask yourself “What isn’t this telling me?” or “Why is this not useful to me?”

Based on this thought process, prepare a simple table with two columns. In the first column include a description of what you want, and in the second column identify why you want it. Then choose your top 3 to 5 items on the list. Now you’re ready to start the next step – following up with your Data Team and/or your Business Intelligence people to have a first conversation about your top-ranked items.

Tip 2: When people say data isn’t available, use the “5 Whys”
Many data people have difficultly seeing the world beyond the standard data that they use every day. So, when you meet with them and tell them about the data that you need, chances are that they will reply by saying “that just isn’t available”.

When it comes to data – almost anything is available – it’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to fight to get what you need.

The “5 Whys” is a simple process of getting to the root of an issue. When your data people tell you that getting the data you need is impossible, ask “why”. They will give you a list of reasons such as “it’s not in the data warehouse”, or “we don’t measure that”, or “the system doesn’t allow that type of reporting”. Pick any of the reasons, and then ask “why” again, which will generate a new list of reasons. Continue this until you’ve reached the root of the issue (hopefully in 5 or less “whys”). The root issue is often one or more of the following:

  • Nobody thought to ask for this before
  • At some point in the past, somebody decided that it was too hard to collect the data
  • The people running the analysis and reporting are limiting themselves based on the capabilities of their reporting tools
  • Nobody has thought of taking a prospective data collection approach, and/or nobody has thought of doing a sampling approach (to reduce data collection costs)

Through a few meetings, you now should have the real reasons why you don’t currently have the information you need. You may even have a sense of how much it would cost.

Tip 3: Estimate the cost of not having the information you need
The last step is where you can make your convincing argument. For each of your top-ranked ideas, you can think about what it’s costing you to not have access to that information.

Does it translate to productivity? Lost time? Missed opportunities? Lost revenue? Customer loyalty? Employee turn-over? If so, then you can translate these consequences into real tangible costs. This isn’t an exercise of doing high-precision activity based costing – instead this is just getting the cost estimates roughly right.

These figures give you an idea of how much your organization could potentially invest into better data and reporting. If you’re business-minded and you could work out the actual investment amounts that would still generate a positive return on investment.

Armed with this analysis, now you’re in a position to convince others what this information is worth. Which brings us to our last step.

Tip 4: Gain the support of the leadership team
Chances are that the information that will help you be more effective in your role, will also be useful to others in the leadership team and throughout your organization. If you can gain the support of the rest of the leadership team then you can increase the chances of getting what you want.

Each team dynamic is different, but a one-on-one approach often works well. These can be quick conversations with each leader with a real focus on “what’s in it for them”. You may be surprised with how many of your peers are equally frustrated by the lack of good information.

With the support of the team, the cost of not having the information and some return on investment estimates, you’ll be able to drive to get the information you need to be successful.

 

These are just a few tips, but I’m sure there are many of leaders out there who have many more great ideas and experiences. If you have suggestions, or alternate points of view, please weigh in.

 

Note: What is a Data Team?
When we refer to “Data Teams” it’s a catch all for groups of technical, statistical, and subject-matter domain experts that are involved in providing information to support their organization. These teams are sometimes called “Business Intelligence”, “Decision Support”, or “Information Management”, but they can also be internal consultants such as “Operations Analysts”, “Strategic Information” or “Research”. Many of these concepts equally apply to teams of Data Scientists.