Tough love in the data culture

When I shared on Twitter the most recent installment in the BI Polar “data culture” series, BI developer Chuy Varela replied to agree with some key points from the video on executive sponsorship… and to share some of his frustrations as well[1].

2020-01-13-08-46-03-439--msedge

Chuy’s comments made me think of advice that I received a few years back from my manager at the time. She told me:

Letting others fail is a Principal-level behavior.

Before I tie this tough love into the context of a data culture and executive sponsorship, I’d like to share the context in which the advice was given.

At the time I had just finished a few 80-hour work weeks, including working 12+ hour days through a long holiday weekend. Much of that time was spent performing tasks that weren’t my responsibility – another member of the extended team was dropping the ball, and with a big customer-facing milestone coming up I wanted to make everything as close to perfect as possible.

Once the milestone had been met, my manager pulled me aside and let me know how unhappy she was that I had been making myself ill to deliver on someone else’s commitments[4]. She went on to elaborate that because of my well-intentioned extra effort, there were two negative consequences:

  1. The extended team member would not learn from the experience, so future teams were more likely to have the same challenges.
  2. The executive sponsors for the current effort would believe that the current level of funding and support was enough to produce the high quality and timely deliverables that actually required extra and unsustainable work.

She was right, of course, I’ve added two phrases to my professional vocabulary because of her advice.

The first phrase[5] gets used when someone is asking me to do work:

That sounds very important, and I hope you find the right folks to get it done. It sounds too important for me to take on, because I don’t have the bandwidth to do it right, and it needs to be done right.

The second phrase gets used when I need to stop working on something:

After this transition I will no longer be performing this work. If the work is still important to you, we’ll need to identify and train someone to replace me. If the work is no longer important, no action is required and the work will no longer be done.

Now let’s think about data culture and executive sponsorship in a bottom-up organization. How does a sponsor – or potential sponsor – react when a BI developer or analyst is delivering amazing insights when it’s not really their job?

If the sponsor is bought in to the value of a data culture, their reaction is like to include making it their job, and ensuring that the analyst gets the support and resources to make this happen. This can take many different forms[6], but should always include an explicit recognition of the work and the value it delivers.

And what if the analyst who has enabled more data-driven decisions is ready to move on to new challenges? What happens to the solutions they’ve built and the processes that rely on their work? What then?

Again, if the sponsor is committed to a data culture, then their reaction will involve making sure that it becomes someone’s responsibility to move the analyst’s work forward. They will assign the necessary resources – data resources, human resources, financial resources – to ensure that the data-driven insights continue.

If you’re working on helping to build a data culture from the bottom up, there are a few opportunities to apply this advice to that end. Please understand that there is risk involved in some of these approaches, so be certain to take the full context into consideration before taking action.

  1. Work with your immediate manager(s) to amplify awareness of your efforts. If your managers believe in the work that you’re doing, they should be willing to help increase visibility.
  2. Ensure that everyone understands that your work needs support to be sustained. You’ve done something because it was the right thing to do, but for you to keep doing it, but you can’t keep doing it with all of your other responsibilities.
  3. When it comes time to change roles, ask who will be taking over the solutions you’ve built in your current role, and how you can transition responsibility to them.

Each of these potential actions is the first step down a more complicated path, and the organization’s response[7] will tell you a lot about the current state of the data culture.

For the first potential course of action, managerial support in communicating the value and impact of current efforts can demonstrate the art of the possible[8] to a potential executive sponsor who may not be fully engaged. If you can do this for your current team or department, imagine what a few more empowered folks could do for the business unit! You see where I’m going…

If this first course of action is the carrot, the other two might be the stick. Not everyone will respond the way we might like to our efforts. If you’re building these solutions today without any additional funding or support, why would I give you more resources? Right? In these cases, the withdrawal or removal of existing capabilities may be what’s necessary to communicate the value of work that’s already been completed.

Wow, this post ended up being much longer than planned. I’ll stop now. Please let me know what you think!


[1] I don’t actually believe in New Years resolutions, but I am now retroactively adding “start a blog post with a sentence that contains six[2] or more hyperlinks to my goals for 2020[3].

[2] Yes, I had to go back to count them.

[3] Nested footnotes achievement unlocked!

[4] If your reaction at this point is “what sort of manager would yell at you for doing extra work?” the answer is “an awesome manager.” This may have been the best advice I ever received.

[5] I’ve probably never said either phrase exactly like this, but the sentiment is there.

[6] Including promotion, transfer to a new role, and/or adding capacity to the analyst’s team so the analyst can focus more on the new BI work.

[7] Remember that a culture is what people do, not what people say – have I mentioned that before?

[8] The art of the possible is likely to warrant its own post and video before too long, so I won’t go into too much depth here.

6 thoughts on “Tough love in the data culture

  1. Pingback: Data culture: Executive sponsorship – BI Polar

  2. Chuy Varela

    Wow!! First of all, I do appreciate your time and dedication to share knowledge and very valuable insights with the community. And special thanks goes to you for addressing my current concern, it was like you knew what I am going through, you just described every bit of it; and paraphrasing a previous conversation we had in Twitter: “you know that you know”. Thank you very much!!!

    Like

    1. Thanks so much for the feedback!

      One of my favorite quotes (from the Glen Cook novel “Shadowline”) goes something like “Age does not confer wisdom – merely experience from which the wise may draw inferences.”

      I can’t claim to be particularly wise, but I’m glad that my experiences can benefit people other than me. Good luck!

      Like

  3. Pingback: Data Culture Needs to Come from the Top – Curated SQL

  4. Fred Kaffenberger

    Wow, indeed!! this article is timely for me as well I’m noticing leaders emerging in job posting where it is very clear that the org has or wants a data culture, which sets them apart from postings which are predominately technical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw a similar posting recently, but it was shared on Twitter by someone who seemed to be complaining that the hiring org wanted someone to help build the data culture – understanding their big problems and choosing and using the right tools to solve those problems – and not merely being a technical role.

      I’m still mulling that one over…

      Like

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