Visualization: New Ways to Weave Data into Your Business Part 1 of a 3-Part Series on the Blue Ocean Strategy for Decision Visualization
by Lee Feinberg
Originally published June 18, 2013
In my previous article, “How to Manage the Visualization Content Revolution,” I discussed the impact of new visualization tools and the need for organizations to change behaviors. I also provided ideas you could immediately put into play and begin to accelerate the value of data and visualization to increase revenue/decrease cost, provide superior customer service or establish higher marketing ROI.
DATA-DRIVEN: Most organizations work this way. They rely on IT to deliver visuals, which analysts piece together with an eye toward developing insights. Business teams also periodically receive Excel files and build their own charts, which includes the heavy lifting of manipulating, aggregating and organizing data.Each transformation has a range of detailed activities that are executed over months. What follows is a strategic framework of how your team needs to break away from its long-standing principles, governance models, roles and responsibilities, etc. Also, the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne is a great foundation that will help you get even more from this series of articles.
So how do you begin to transition away from data-driven and toward decision visualization? The key is to understand what work is actually going on (or not), and decide to do more or less of that activity. Here’s how I view the work of business intelligence, dissected into 11 components. This article starts with three, and I will cover the rest in future articles, bringing together the entire blue ocean strategy.
1. Visualization TrainingAlmost everyone can use a tool like Excel to create a chart – but that doesn’t mean they know how to create a visualization. You must learn this skill and practice diligently. There are many books, classes, and websites dedicated to this topic. I strongly urge you to take a class for concentrated learning. Then when dealing with folks who want to tell you how to make a good visual, you can just say, “This is what I learned in class.”
Devoted software training is also required. Do not expect your team to quickly master the fundamentals while doing the rest of their job. As a result, there is a high risk many will perceive the visualization software as ineffective or hard to use. If Excel training was mandatory, I bet we would all like it a lot more.
The last, and most critical, piece is that IT and business people must take the training together – in the same room. Bring in other functional groups as makes sense. You will build a common foundation, and the teams will naturally begin to ask questions and address long-standing challenges in a low pressure way.
You should also consider investing so teams have support for the next month or two after training. First, this shows organizational commitment. Second, people are motivated to experiment and push themselves, knowing they have a quick way to get unstuck. Third, feedback from whomever is providing support lets you gauge progress and understand potential issues when you want to expand the rollout.
2. Executive DirectiveIn addition to putting money on the table, management has a responsibility to actively and vocally support the changes required of everyone to work in new ways. Get them into (at least part of) the training – participation makes their talk credible, provides an opportunity to hear from the front line, and lets them speak knowledgeably about the training to their peers (and bosses).
I am sure you have seen how engaged folks are with senior management. Make sure to block 15 minutes for your executive to give a pep talk and Q&A. If your executive doesn’t think this initiative is important enough to invest his or her time, you have to reconsider whether the entire investment is worthwhile – it’s that important!
Once the change is in motion, executives must reinforce using the new tools and ways of working. It’s too easy for someone to fall back on what they know because it takes less time, as they are not yet efficient in the new model (again, it’s so important to invest in continued support). For example, if you are moving to another tool from PowerPoint, do not allow anyone to present in PowerPoint. This may sound hardcore, but allowing old behavior weakens your initiative.
3. Bold DesignIn the same way we may discuss an idea using different words to construct sentences, paragraphs, and so on, we can, and should, use different visuals for different communication goals. For example, here are three completely different ways to show actuals vs. targets. Same message, unique communication.
Figure 1: Actuals vs. Targets
© 2013 DecisionViz
One strength of emerging visualization tools such as Tableau is their ability to seamlessly transform a visual into another with literally one click. Therein also lies a challenge. You want to maintain consistent communication throughout your organization. Set and enforce guidelines for when/how to use each visual so that individuals do not create new versions "they like better." This is also efficient so teams do not recreate standardized work.
Are you oppressed by "the tyranny of pie charts™?” Unable to break free from ineffective visuals because you fear change (or more likely your organization fears change)? During your training (see #1: Visualization Training) you became educated about best practices and the foundations of visualization. Think back to a moment when you said to yourself, “That will never work!” Or maybe you brought it up for discussion – bravo. Well, you are going to make it work.
Your management and peers see you as a visualization leader. Take one visual and give yourself the freedom to reimagine communicating the intended message in a clear and compelling way. This is a step of personal growth and a step to move the organization forward. It might seem risky, but simply see this as proposing an alternative that’s open to conversation.
When you get feedback, have confidence in your new skills and don’t feel compelled to immediately explain your choices. Take a consultative approach to understand the underlying reasons. Ask what’s confusing and why. Your revised product will be leaps ahead of the status-quo work that has satisfied the organization for years.
Set Your Action PlanWe only covered three of my 11 points in this article (future articles will cover the remaining 8 points), but that should be enough to shake up your thinking. It’s likely you can use additional training. Sit down with your executives and agree on how they should communicate – and make sure they do it. Lastly, help your organization up their game and begin to see the impact of visualization. Excelsior!
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