January 19, 2011

Analytics Thursday: Listening, Timing, and Permission

Old School:  It's 1994, and I'm working at Lands' End as Manager of Analytical Services.  For the past year, I helped execute and analyze results of a test to measure the impact of every business unit on each other.  We just finished executing the test ... fifty-two weeks of a 2^7 factorial design that yielded 128 test segments and countless tidbits of information on how customers shopped.

I expected to complete the results of the analysis in a couple of months ... after all, I had a day job to do, so I set an arbitrary analysis completion date.  Nobody in Management complained about the deadline I set, so I believed that all was good.

And then I'm listening to our business head tell an individual that, in seven days (the following Thursday), she was meeting with all business heads to discuss how to strategically approach the marketing of each business unit in 1995 and 1996.

Three thoughts came to mind.
  1. I wasn't invited to the meeting (nor should I have been, I was a lowly Manager).
  2. My data wasn't going to be shared at that meeting.
  3. The entire reason we executed the year-long test was because we wanted to determine how to strategically approach the marketing of each business unit in 1995 and 1996.
What to do ... what to do ... what to do?

I spent the entire weekend compiling the results of the test.  I ignored every geeky metric that existed ... you know, stuff like significance tests and p-values and confidence intervals and all that stuff.  I pretended that I was a business head ... what did this person what to learn, or more important, what did this person need to learn?

I met with an Executive in the Finance department ... I played basketball with this person three times a week, so I felt comfortable asking this person for detailed financial information about each business unit.  After sharing my presentation with him, he showed me how to calculate a full profit and loss statement for each business unit ... with catalog mailings or without, after accounting for all fixed and variable costs.  This was a really important step, because profit data told a story that couldn't be easily inferred with standard KPIs.  The story that I needed to tell could not be properly told or understood without profitability data.

I ended up with eighty (80) Powerpoint slides.  

I still didn't have a forum for sharing the results.

I hastily arranged a meeting for the following Wednesday (the day before the meeting with the heads of each business unit), inviting my department head, the other Managers in my department, and the folks who helped me execute the test.

On Wednesday, I printed color copies of the presentation (color copies were a big deal in 1994), handing out eighty pages of hard work to each Manager.  Our meeting was at 2:00pm.  Our department head didn't show up ... and that's a bad thing, because this person needed to see the results, because she was the only person invited to meet with the department heads.

I started the meeting at 2:00pm, regardless of her lack of attendance.  At 2:50pm, as I was wrapping up slide #74, our department head entered the room.  As I finished presenting the final six slides, our department head fast-forwarded through the content she missed.  I ended my presentation.  Our department head told our team that the information in the test was exactly what she needed to share with all department heads, and that, amazingly, there was a meeting the very next day with all department heads to go over strategy for 1995-1996.  What a coincidence!  She asked me to attend the meeting, and asked me to present the slides to the CEO and all business heads.

I accepted her invitation.  The next day, I presented the findings of the year-long test to a room split by the results of the tests.  Needless to say, the discussion was spirited, an eye-opening experience for a twenty-nine year old who had not previously had an opportunity to participate in a meeting of this magnitude at a billion-dollar a year company.

Modern Application:  Give Twitter a read, and you'll see analytics experts providing tips and techniques for success.  We're taught how to execute a test, how to measure significance, how to avoid pie charts, how to create a dashboard that outlines the findings.

We're almost never told about listening, timing, and permission.

First, keep your ear to the ground.  This isn't about gossip, this is about taking the temperature of your organization.  What are people wondering about?  Do you have answers for the questions people have?  Do you have a forum for providing the answers?  I can't tell you how important it is to listen.  Listen to Executives.  Listen to Directors.  Listen to Customers.  Listen to the CEO.  Listen to the CEO's Administrative Assistant.  Practice taking action, based on what you hear.  You're not going to be perfect.  I tried the exact same approach in 1997 at Eddie Bauer ... and it was a disaster.  There aren't "Six Easy Steps To Getting A Seat At The Executive Table".  You try things, you learn, you adapt.  View it like a free throw shooting percentage in basketball ... shoot 60% this year, then 70% next year, then realize it's going to be very hard to ever shoot 75% or better.

Second, be savvy ... timing is everything.  If I complete the work just before the approved deadline, it's entirely possible that the work never sees the light of day.  Know when your Executive team has scheduled meetings.  If you don't have a relationship with your Executive team, initiate a relationship with the Admin who supports the Executive you want to work with.  The Admin knows when important meetings are scheduled, the Admin knows when weekly meetings are held and who attends those meetings.  Hand-deliver your results to the Admin ... don't rely on Executives to visit your fancy intranet site, don't expect an Executive to review your important, KPI-loaded customer analysis dashboard.  Take matters into your own hands.  Tailor your projects around key Executive meetings.  At Eddie Bauer, in 1997, there was this thing called a "QPM", or "Quarterly Planning Meeting".  Once a quarter, all Executives got together to discuss the performance of the business.  Not surprisingly, I tailored delivery of all important analytics projects within one week of this meeting.  Timing is everything ... you are marketing yourself, you are defining your "target audience" and you are marketing to your target audience when the target audience is most receptive.

Third, permission is flexible.  I know that's a hard concept to accept, but permission is truly flexible.  I didn't have permission to obtain company financials, heck, those numbers were never shared with anybody ... but I had data that the Finance Executive loved, I gave the Finance Executive first crack at seeing the results, and I had a prior relationship with this individual, so I obtained information critical to the story I was telling.  Furthermore, I did not have permission to attend an Executive meeting, so I had to create a forum that would grant me the permission I sought.  

We're taught to use this approach:
  • Use best practices to create a spectacular analysis.
  • Publish your findings via a dashboard, utilizing KPIs that measure ROI.
  • When Executives don't accept your findings, beat the Executives up for being Luddites.
I suggest a different approach.
  • Listening.
  • Timing.
  • Permission.
Your thoughts?


  1. Kevin:

    What resonated with me from your story (thanks for sharing it) -

    1. You went to great lengths to tie in your findings to company bottom lines. Which executive wouldn't like to see that? That nugget I think should be in every Web Analytics 101 class.

    2. You had relationships in place that allowed you to push the right buttons, and do the right things once you "gauged the temperature". I have seen it over and over as well that when it comes to execution, it's about relationships and people skills if the big picture is clear in the mind.

    3. I loved the way you explained "permission is flexible". I couldn't agree more. Early in my career, when I started venturing into more interactive roles that demanded people skills, one my mentors told me, "go ahead and do it, you can always go back and apologize to mend the fences. But, holding off for formal approval won't take you too far, if you want to change something."

    If you have a value to add, nothing wrong in finding a way to get the attention, and getting your point across. People love initiative and leadership. They appreciate it when it is in interest of everyone.

    Now, how do you find a way, how do you navigate the relationships and current structure? I wish there were a crystal ball to guide me. In the mean time, I am doing it by simply doing it. Time and experience have taught me a lot, but it's still work in progress.


  2. This is THE main issue with analytics besides getting the stats right (and sometimes, as you point it out, bigger than it).

    The problematics of 'political will' within organizations, or even the force of inertia and mis-prioritization was thoroughly discussed during SAS excellent Premier Leadership Business Series in Vegas last October. Conclusion: if you need to step on some toes, do it so gently as if you're cuddling them...

    Continuing with the foot metaphor, I will never forget what my thesis supervisor taught me someday: Fabiana, to get in you'll have to put your foot on the door before it closes, but will seldom need to kick it open...

  3. Deven, good thoughts, and it certainly is a work in progress.

    Fabina --- yup, there's plenty of ways to stick a foot in the door before it closes. This is one example of many possibilities.

  4. Great post, Kevin. This advice will really help me when I pitch to investors next week.

    You know, economists are really analysts, too. The problem is always getting people to listen, and then creating political will for change. Record US deficits were predicted since the 60's due to flaws inherent to the dollar reserve system. More recently, many economists predicted the housing collapse years in advance. Of course, profiteers didn't want to hear any of that and economists lacked the incredible people skills required to break through the noise and confusion.

    So why is it that analysts of all stripes struggle to break through the noise?
    People skills are part of the picture, but equally important is the type of scientific integrity described by Richard Feynman. As he put it:

    "I have just one wish for you--the good luck to be somewhere
    where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have
    described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain
    your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on,
    to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom."



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