How to Manage the Visualization Content Revolution
by Lee Feinberg
Originally published January 15, 2013
Try to resist this sales pitch: I have a business intelligence (BI) and visualization solution that will let your teams access the company’s vast stores of data, analyze that data, and produce crisp visuals that will drive action and bottom-line results. Sound familiar? Maybe this was how people anticipated the benefits of what has become the various software entrenched in our daily lives as analytics and visualization practitioners. To be absolutely clear, I’m talking about solutions ranging from desktop spreadsheets to enterprise applications.
“With great power comes great responsibility.”
Voltaire, and made popular in Marvel Comics’ “The Amazing Spiderman”
So how can we make sure the quality and volume of content published are as high as possible? How do we elevate the value of clear communication and eliminate long-standing organizational habits that create vague visuals messages? I’m working closely with clients on these critical points, and it involves much more than picking “the best” software solution.
More important than any single action, to get the most out of new tools – or even existing tools – executives must truly commit to the idea of working in new ways. If success simply relied on making sure you followed best practices for creating visualizations, then you would have already re-worked your existing deliverables. I know you have the foresight to realize that this alone isn’t going to drive any meaningful change.
It’s relatively easy to implement new software and teach people how to use it, but it’s not a cure-all to solve existing BI issues and it won’t dramatically increase the value of current BI operations. The hard work is executing a plan to manage the organizational impacts. Here are a few things you can do. In fact, if you aren’t adopting new software right now, it’s an even better time to consider moving your organization in this new direction.
Develop a Common LanguageWhen each person on your team presents sales trends during planning meetings, does it sometimes seem like they are talking about completely different information? You cannot afford time to decode variations like this, and your team should not have to spend time choosing how to show common data. Instead, agree on a visual dictionary that reinforces clarity and lets everyone focus their energy into analysis, rather than building the visuals.
But you also need to provide room for creativity so people push the boundaries of creating new and engaging visuals. There doesn’t have to be “one” right way, but more than three is hard to manage. Also, a certain visual type might fit into the conversation better, so you want to provide flexibility in the same way an author can choose from several words to get his point across. Clear communication is the goal.
Teach People How to Have a ConversationHow many times have you heard someone say, “Our answers will be a lot better if we ask better questions”? I totally agree! There’s just one problem – no one in the room usually knows how to ask better questions or can suggest better ways to try. Easy to say, hard to do. We cannot wave a magic wand and expect everyone to start asking better questions.
To ask better questions, focus on action and decision making rather than on data. Emphasize intent. Here are a few examples of what better questions could look like in your organization:
To get better questions, you have to question everything. Help your team be comfortable with this idea; they need to understand that the goal of the questioning is to build support and stronger results, not a challenge. (That will happen, of course – but when your team has been more collaborative through conversation, there won’t be as much contention). You will quickly see that you can make almost every question better with just a bit more effort. As you start to more clearly drive decisions and actions, you will also see a solid return on that investment.
Like every strength, you can build “muscle” by exercising. As your coach, let me give you a few action-oriented approaches you can use to mix up the conversation and make sure it doesn’t get stale. Think of this as sample workout routines to jump-start your conditioning program. I would certainly love to hear what works for you; please send me an email (BEYE@DecisionViz.com) or leave a comment at the end of the article.
Remember, it’s always a good time to ask better questions, so don’t get stuck on whether you should “start” during the next analytic project, your weekly business reviews, or the debrief of a high-performing marketing campaign.
Call Out Great WorkIt’s not always easy for everyone to recognize great content – especially if all the work to date hasn’t been that great. Everyone on the team should share examples of what they consider excellent and mark your team’s progress toward achieving greatness.
There are many ways to think about success:
Get StartedAs analytic and visualization practitioners, our job is to help others understand information, make decisions, and drive to an action (taking no action can also be an appropriate action). Even the simplest visual exists for the sole purpose of delivering a message and influencing; if it doesn’t, throw it away. Develop a common framework for presenting data, practice asking better questions, and showcase the kind of work you expect. We are at the forefront of a content revolution and need to lead our organizations through the changes to take full advantage of new and existing tools, and the latent power they can deliver. Excelsior!
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