For Analytics, the Singer is More Important than the Song

7 min read

A mistake an analyst can make is to propose an idea and prematurely rush ahead to get started falsely assuming that others are on board and committed. Some who are affected may not understand it, like it, or like the analyst. Persuading others to change is a process. Effectively communicating is a challenge, especially with today’s Twitter influenced short attention spans and memory retention. How does one overcome these barriers?   

Gary Cokins, Founder, Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC

Most advocates of analytics do not have problems performing analysis. Their challenge is effectively communicating with their colleagues and getting them on board and getting buy-in.

Consider this example. An analyst comes up with an idea, perhaps to identify the most valuable type of customer to pursue for actions to lift profits. They conduct a meeting. They explain the problem to be solved or the opportunity to pursue. They describe their solution. They conclude the meeting with defining and scheduling next steps.

Now imagine the analyst gets to secretly listen to conversations of the meeting attendees with others of their impressions of the analyst’s proposal. What might they hear? Attendees might confess they did not really understand the problem, opportunity, or solution. Some might negatively react that they do not like the solution. Some might not like the analyst and their message.

Getting ahead before acceptance and commitment

The root problem is the analyst has already assumed everyone is on board and ready to get started. In reality, the analyst has presumed that everyone understands the issues and are prepared for the next steps. Don’t be so hasty. A mistake made by idea generators, like the analyst, is assuming that informing and educating their colleagues equates to their support and commitment. The analyst has erroneously gotten ahead of their audience.

In his book Beyond the Wall of Resistance[1] by Rick Maurer, the author uses a similar example as an introduction to his copyrighted “Cycle of Change” wheel diagram. The cycle includes these stages:

  • In the dark – The people you want to influence are unaware of the problem and therefore the need for change. They do not see reasons to act on the issue.
  • See the challenge – Maurer refers to this as the “aha” moment when someone acknowledges the problem, threat, or opportunity. This is the most critical stage in the cycle. Once people see the challenge, it becomes possible to align them and advance in the cycle.
  • Get started – These are the typical initial actions like identifying objectives and making plans. The obstacle is people who are still in the dark or who do not see the challenge. They are not ready to get started.
  • Roll out – Roll out is sometimes confused with a successful conclusion. It is just the beginning. The system may be in place and people trained. But the roll out means you are just starting the analysis or project implementation.
  • Results – This is the stage where the benefits, partial or full, are realized. Examples of benefits may be increased revenues, cost reductions, or reduced cycle time. Results are the test of both the idea and its solution including the implementation.
  • Time to move on – Eventually the idea and its implementation are completed. Minor refinements can continue, but generally at this point the change has served its purpose, and there are new priorities to pursue.

The more critical obstacles are in the beginning stages. In addition to the previously stated mistake of assuming everyone is on board and prematurely advancing to the “get started” stage, Maurer cites other mistakes. One is underestimating the potential power of co-worker and management engagement. Employees who are dis-engaged can break the spirit of those who are. Another mistake is not recognizing how much resistance to change and fear may reside in co-workers.

An additional and critical mistake Maurer cites is a failure to acknowledge how lack of trust or confidence in the analyst or leadership can prevent pursuing a good idea. The adage from the movie The Field of Dreams was “If you build it (the baseball field), then they will come.” That won’t work.

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[1] Beyond the Wall of Resistance; Revised Edition; Rick Maurer; Bard Press; 2010.

The “why” before the “how”

The lesson here is to not move to action too quickly. Until understanding and education are firmly in place, there is the risk that others will tune-out or even sabotage an idea. In the “see the challenge” stage of the cycle an analyst as a change agent should be empathetic. They need to place themselves in the shoes of their audience and consider what may emotionally affect them.

Do not underestimate the importance of making a strong case for the idea or change. Do not rush to the “how” without everyone understanding and agreeing to the “why.”

At any stage in the cycle of change there is vulnerability to resistance that can emerge from any missteps. Resistance to change is human nature. People like the status quo. Maurer warns change agents to watch out for three increasing levels of concern:

  1. Logical concern: Confusion versus understanding – Your audience is thinking, “I don’t get it.”

2. Emotional concern: Fear versus a favorable reaction – Your audience is thinking, “I don’t like it.”

3. Personal concern: Mistrust versus confidence – Your audience is thinking, “I don’t like you.”

People are seldom neutral. They are either supportive or opposing.

 

Effective communications – short and sweet

Getting your message out involves effective communications. Good communication matters when you want to convert opposing views, build that business case earlier mentioned, or at a minimum just get an audience to listen to you. This is essential during the “in the dark” and “see the challenge” stages of Maurer’s Cycle of Change.

A challenge is that in this Twitter era and deluge of social media and other distractions the attention span of people is shortening. Worse yet is anyone’s brief memory retention. Google the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Hermaan Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who researched memory in the late 19th century. His tests revealed that immediate recall and memory of a message typically drops to 60% in 19 minutes, 45% in 63 minutes, and 33% in a day.

So, what are effective ways to communicate? Most important is to keep your message brief and simple.

Consider this example. For Americans, did you know that on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Gettysburg’s Soldiers National Cemetery the first speaker was a popular orator of the time, Edward Everett? His talk was over two hours, and was roughly 13,700 words. President Abraham Lincoln was also invited to speak and not expected to accept. But he did. His address was 271 words and delivered in two minutes. One talk was memorable and the other forgettable.

Lincoln did not quickly compose his speech. He carefully crafted it. That reveals a difficult task. The shorter the time to communicate a message, the more thought that must go in to crafting it.

In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die[1], they emphasize key points to make a message “stick” with readers or listeners. This quote is from the Publishers Weekly review of their book. “What makes stories memorable and ensures their spread around the globe? The authors credit six key principles: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. (The initial letters spell out «success» – well, almost.) They illustrate these principles with a host of stories, some familiar (Kennedy’s stirring call to «land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth» within a decade) and others very funny (Nora Ephron’s anecdote of how her high school journalism teacher used a simple, embarrassing trick to teach her how not to «bury the lead»).”

I have been fortunate to have made many presentations for my employers admittedly to drum up business and sale leads. I may not always have been perfectly on message for what my employer was selling at the time. But I have been effective at holding people’s attention and earning the right to advance. As my article title states, sometimes the singer is more important than the song.

Analysts are passionate about their ideas and techniques to gain insights and provide foresight for their colleagues to make better decisions. It is not sufficient to have a good idea. Analysts need to explain it, get buy-in for it, sell it, and implement it. You may not have a great singing voice. Everyone is not a Frank Sinatra. But if your song is a decent one, singing it well and not getting ahead of your audience may be your secret to better success of your ideas and analysis.

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[1] Made to Stick; Chip and Dan Heath; Random House; 2007.

About Gary Cokins

Gary Cokins is the founder of Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC, an advisory firm. He is an internationally recognized expert, speaker and author in advanced cost management and performance improvement systems previously a principal consultant with SAS. You can contact him at [email protected] . For more of Cokins' unique look at the world, visit his website at www.garycokins.com .