Developing a culture of empiricism, or, Learn to love your dashboard

Is your organization chock-full of civil engineers? Or graphic designers? Or accountants? Or educators? Or coders?

Whatever the stereotypes we might have about various professions, I have found that, across the board, organizations struggle with developing what I heard Rotman School marketing professor Dilip Soman call a culture of empiricism. We are all increasingly drowning in data – but are we effectively using it?

Often organizations will translate their strategies or their operational plans to dashboards, one or a few pages that are usually crammed chockablock full of data, intended to illuminate the organization at a glance.

I’ve seen many analysts, myself included back in the day, develop great dashboards, with agreed-upon metrics and snappy (or not-so-snappy) design. And every time a new dashboard (or report) is introduced, for the first few months it is all about orienting to the dashboard itself. What is on it, why it’s there (and not something else), what are the data sources (and can they be relied upon), what constitutes a meaningful change in the numbers, what one person on the leadership team should care about vs. another, why the team should pay any attention to anything on it, and on and on. Your profession might possibly indicate what more you’re likely to drill down on (or back away from), but no matter what your background is, you aren’t likely to settle into effectively using the reporting instantly.

So, if you’re somewhere on the road to developing a culture of empiricism around your management or boardroom table, here some guidelines for pulling together your reporting – whether you call it your monthly dashboard, “Meredith’s email,” the management binder, or That Stupid Big Report – and helping it to really take root in your organization. And let’s note that people arguing about a report is at least engagement – infinitely preferable to just ignoring it.

The dashboard should be:

  • Simple. Don’t report more than your audience can absorb in the time they have to review it. No getting fancy. Don’t overcomplicate it.
  • Sustainable. Gathering and presenting the data can be time-consuming, and that work is often hard to see. Make sure you properly resource someone to do it, and remember that it needs to happen every reporting period (week, month, quarter, etc.).
  • Elegant. Don’t use three metrics when they all tell you the same thing. Everything on that page should add unique, distinctive value to your understanding.
  • Relevant. Don’t report on things that you have agreed aren’t important. Just because you have data doesn’t mean you need to look at it. This obscures the things you have decided are important.
  • Flexible. While you do want to establish good habits around using data, don’t let it start to feel set in stone.

It takes time to adjust to the data and understand what it’s telling you, if it’s regular reporting. Keep at it. get in touch.

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