Four Ways Leaders Sabotage Analytic ProjectsSep 06, 2023
Over 80% of analytic projects deliver no business value. Think about that a second: only one in five projects achieve a useful outcome. It’s a BIG problem.
Investigations of this phenomenon have concluded that most failures occur not because companies lack talent or technology, but instead because of insufficient or ineffective communication. But there’s a twist to this explanation. Almost always, business professionals blame analysts: they don’t give me the information I need in a way that I can understand it. On the other side, analysts blame business professionals: they don’t give me enough information to know what they need.
After thirty years of witnessing this dynamic, and acting as a go-between, I decided to train others to be Analytic Translators. The course focuses heavily on skills to shepherd projects through a series of critical steps, encourage information exchange, and build alliances between these often-adversarial teams.
Analytic translators learn to identify unintentional, but problematic, dynamics between business and data professionals, such as:
- Specialized terminologies that confuse the other group.
- Hasty project goals that haven’t been thought through.
- Assumptions about what the other team really means.
- Style and personality differences that alienate the other group.
- Misalignment of goals.
- Adherence to rigid rules that undermine the needs of the other group.
- Insufficient investment translating complex concepts.
All of these can be recognized and mitigated with analytic translation skills. As translators facilitate constructive dialog, and ask effective questions, teams begin to relate and collaborate.
Students learning analytic translation become adept at handling these dynamics and improving the success rate of projects. It’s been rewarding to watch how relationships improve.
But unfortunately, leaders are also making things difficult.
I have been disheartened by another set of challenges my students report. These are intentional choices (actions and omissions), made mostly by leaders and managers.
These arise in conversations with my students in the form: “What do you do if your manager…”
- …Refuses to clarify a request?
Often, analytic translator students will share that they received a cryptic analytic request — sometimes in the Subject line of an email — with no detail. Then, when the translator asks for clarification, the requestor will ignore them or refuse because they “don’t have time.”
It is a pattern I have noticed (and is getting worse) that some leaders have an expectation of mind-reading. Leaders imply that others should know what they mean and find fault in those who do not guess correctly.
At best, this is the result of extreme overscheduling by leaders. At worst, this reflects a belief that other people’s time is not as valuable as theirs. They find it more acceptable to waste their subordinates’ time than to invest their own time defining what they want.
Such experiences create the no-win situation of knowing you will produce the wrong result but having no way to identify the right one. It’s a clear Catch-22.
Again, I am not referring to all situations where someone sends a quick request; that’s part of business. I am instead referring to when the person receiving the request asks to get more information, and the requestor won’t provide it.
- …Never provides any context?
In a business setting, the purpose, context, audience, and expected format will (and should) always shape an analysis. When leaders insist that analysts do not need to know all those things (just get me an answer), it hampers the project in several ways.
First, if analysts have no context for “why” they are doing the project, they lose the ability to provide valuable input that might improve it. Second, without knowledge of who will use the results, and in what format the audience expects them, analysts will likely need to redo the work later. Third, when analysts process a transactional request without a clear understanding of the business needs behind it, they do not develop a broader awareness of priorities. It limits their future recognition of and contribution to potential solutions.
Explanations of purpose, context, and audience improve work quality and require less time than rework.
- …Keeps changing their mind?
When I hear this question, I pay attention to both the change behavior and communication about the behavior.
On the surface, this behavior is not necessarily problematic. Business environments change constantly, shifting priorities. While it can be frustrating to repeatedly abandon an unfinished project and switch to another, sometimes it’s unavoidable. It can seem like the leader assigning tasks is scattered and can’t set clear priorities, causing workers to waste effort on output that never gets used.
But when I dig deeper, there is more to the story than simply switching projects. While the switch itself can be annoying, the biggest result comes from how the switch is communicated. Often, managers will simply announce that priorities have changed and expect the team to jump seamlessly to the next project.
However, high-achieving professionals strive to finish projects and deliver value. That’s why they were hired, after all. When smart, accomplished professionals must leave behind projects into which they put great effort and ideas, it’s demotivating.
I am not suggesting that businesses continue projects that no longer have value so that analysts feel better about themselves. Instead, there are some simple communication elements that can make switching less discouraging.
Acknowledge. Announce what the change is and why it is happening. Simply state that the company recognizes that changing priorities can be frustrating. This shows empathy and does not dismiss such feelings as unimportant.
Appreciate. Give authentic thanks for the effort analysts made on the previous project. Let them know their work is noticed and valued.
Invite. Open the door for them to share important things they learned. There may have been some valuable discoveries (data quality, correlations, methods, unusual patterns) worth documenting. Provide an opportunity for workers to document new insights, either in writing or as a debrief.
All three of these can be accomplished in 15-20 seconds of conversation, or a few sentences in an email.
When I ask students whether managers always “changing their mind” would feel different with those three messages, they always say yes.
- …Won’t listen to our findings (especially if they contradict what leaders want).
Analytics in business can involve a fine line. Leaders want good news, but they also need accurate information. I once worked for an executive who occasionally instructed the analytic team to “go back and try again,” which was code for bringing the answer he wanted to hear. Another executive responded to an analysis by declaring that we must have made an error. (I was quite sure we hadn’t).
Such responses show a lack of respect for analysts, which inspires mutual distrust.
There is nothing wrong with informing the analytics team about the needs of the business, or the need for supportive evidence. They will look for positive findings. Disappointing results are rarely an indication that analysts are not trying hard enough or don’t care. They are doing their work to the best of their ability.
Rather than blaming the messenger, these instances provide an opportunity for dialog about why results were contrary to the desired outcome as well as brainstorming for possible alternatives. Many times in my career, disappointing results have led to subsequent innovations that drastically improved a product or service.
Leaders can make or break analytic projects with simple choices.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by the behaviors reported by my students. Leaders have documented tendencies to listen less, interrupt more, and solicit fewer opinions. Indeed, only 8% of employees report that their leader is a great listener.
But I wonder, in the case of analytics, whether they realize that their behaviors sabotage projects. A few simple choices could dramatically improve the quality of analytic work. These are:
- Take a few minutes to explain analytic requests and educate data professionals about the purpose and context of the project.
- Show regular acknowledgement and appreciation for work, even (and perhaps especially) if the project is abandoned.
- Provide opportunities for analysts to share what they learned.
- Listen open-mindedly to results, both positive and negative. Encourage accuracy and transparency, even in high-stakes situations.
- In cases where results are disappointing, ask analysts for their perspective and ideas.
Yes, executives are busy. In today’s work environment, everyone is. But if leaders hope to harness the power of data, it’s worth investing enough time to let analysts succeed.