Use Decision-Driven Visualization to Activate (Big) Data

Originally published April 17, 2012

A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers. – Plato

With the daily business pressures of competition and demanding customers, we have come to expect data to give us answers and tell us what actions to take. Yet, overwhelmed with information, we default to making decisions on intuition and experience – perhaps Plato faced similar big data problems. How, then, can you use data to make better decisions?

Since we mainly communicate data through visualization, we need to shift from data visualization to the practice of “decision visualization.” We should elevate conversations from the details of data to making decisions supported by data. The distinction may seem trivial, but it is not.

Consider the head of a product portfolio who asks for a report showing the sales of each product by region. You deliver the numbers with a concise visual, and your job is done – but is it? You’ve actually done all the easy work and left the hard work to the portfolio manager. She has to look at all the data and figure out possible actions to take. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Here is something to consider: If you knew what decision the manager was trying to make, would you have delivered something different?

Your Responsibility to Drive Change

Now, you are not going to sit at your desk and dream up what decisions the manager cares about. You are going to ask her; in fact, you must ask. This pivotal moment is an amazing opportunity to strengthen the relationship between the business and business intelligence. Your work will have greater influence and directly affect the direction of the company. Doesn’t this excite you a lot more than reporting data?

Just as the role of data changes, our responsibilities as business intelligence and analytics practitioners must also change. We will be more like management consultants, having a solid understanding of the company's goals and strategy, and then making key decisions based on the connections between data and key initiatives. Since we will  significantly reshape our relationships across the organization, our first step is to move discussions of data towards being “decision driven.” Figure 1 outlines some questions to start this kind of conversation.


Figure 1: The Decision-Driven ContinuumTM (mouse over image to enlarge)
© 2012 Lee Feinberg

You should not be surprised that I suggest you talk about data first – everyone is comfortable with the topic and you can build up consulting chops to handle the more complex and critical points. You may be tempted to jump right to the end state – focusing on decisions – but you cannot ignore all the history you are attempting to rewrite. Bring everyone on the journey so that you can experience the change together.

Of course, I strongly urge you to build upon this framework to fit your unique relationships. Do you see how the progression allows you to build knowledge about the organization and continuously raise the strategic level of your questions? Through this approach, you also inspire everyone in the conversation to review and rethink the way work gets accomplished with current models. Your particular circumstances and organizational inertia will determine how fast you move through the stages.

Be Courageous

Passing through each level presents a rare chance to reinvent status quo work processes and unleash an entirely new wave of value. To reinforce your shift to decision-driven thinking, your deliverables (i.e., visuals) must also reflect a different approach. Your high definition (HD) visualizations will draw people in, get them interested, and get them asking questions.

Let’s revisit the example of the portfolio manager who asked for the sales report.  The report in Figure 2 meets the request to show sales for last year across the portfolio. Many people will easily see that Technology had good results in March and May; some may see that Technology outsold Office Supplies and Furniture in most months. But what else will they learn and what decision does this lead the team to consider? 


Figure 2: Sales Chart Example
© 2012 Lee Feinberg

Let’s shift into decision-driven thinking mode. The portfolio manager likely has many business issues to address. Here’s one that is a reasonable starting place: “In which product should we consider investing more marketing dollars to increase growth?” Figure 3 is one way to represent this question. From the trend lines it looks like Furniture sales are growing while the others are declining, so more investment in Office Supplies and Technology might accelerate sales.


Figure 3: Sales Trends Example
© 2012 Lee Feinberg

How different does this feel compared to producing a sales report? What entirely new set of conversations can you envision your team having about taking decisive action? Now, you would not necessarily reallocate budgets based on this image alone, but it gives you a clearer path toward making an informed decision.

Instigate Creative Tension

“What does this mean?” will often be the first question you hear after showing your amazing, new decision-driven visualization. If not, you either perfected the approach briefly outlined in this article and brought your team to a new level of performance (Kudos!)  or they have absolutely no idea what it means and are too polite to say otherwise. They could even nicely say, “I don’t like it.” 

Don’t take their opinions personally. Consider how you may have responded to an entirely new situation. The portfolio manager might be uncomfortable if your visual is not a familiar design or the team might see an unexpected result with serious implications. Do not try to convince them that your design is awesome. Do not revert to a less meaningful design because of a little resistance. This is another point when you must be consultative. Listen and ask questions about what they don’t like, what they expected, what would make it better.
 
I want to reiterate a key point – if you don’t get a strong reaction to your design, you probably haven’t delivered anything with long-term impact. Strive to create controversy and conversation that will ultimately unite your team around making better decisions.

You Can Do It

Always be decision-driven. Start using the Decision-Driven ContinuumTM to change the course of conversations (keep a copy of the diagram handy). You might find it helpful to prepare your ideas before a big meeting and go in with a few example HD visualizations. The opportunity is yours to seize; you are the “former” reporting person on a mission to drive change. Keep these ideas in mind:
  1. You must become a decision-driven company to deal with big data – even “little” data.

  2. Keep a management consultant mind-set; ask questions and collaborate.

  3. HD visualizations foster discussion and decision-making through thoughtful design.
Together, let’s increase the value created by visualization practitioners. As our companies and clients face sprawling amounts of data, we can build the common foundation to “make data a part of every conversation.™” Is your organization decision-driven? What challenges are you working through? What amazing successes have you had? I look forward to starting the discussion with you.


  • Lee FeinbergLee Feinberg
    Lee is the Founder of DecisionViz, a management consultancy that helps companies “escape the legacy of reporting data by transforming complex data into simple pictures for making decisions.” Ten years ago, working with companies generating large amounts of Internet data, Lee realized that visualization would be a disruptive capability. Clients such as IBM, Ford, and Nokia have used his Decision Visualization™ business strategy and DRAW-ON™ visualization process to make data actionable. Industry leaders frequently ask Lee to address domestic and international audiences, most recently including O'Reilly Media Strata, Tableau Software European and North American Customer Conferences, TDWI, Data Modeling Zone, CBS Interactive, and WARC.  He is also the founder of the NJ and NY Tableau Software User Groups. Prior to founding DecisionViz, Lee joined Nokia in 2009 with the vision of “making data a part of every conversation.” His team launched data visualization services, providing 1000+ employees access to dashboards and analysis, under the credo "running business intelligence like a business." At Razorfish, Lee established an analytics management practice for the Ford Motor Company. At Digitas, Lee served on IBM’s corporate task force to define online metrics standards and introduced early interactive visualization technology.  Lee received a B.S. and M.S. from Cornell University and holds a U.S. Patent for a PC-telephone interface.  He is a member of the Cornell Entrepreneur Network and the Sandler Sales Institute. 

    Website: DecisionViz
    Email: Lee@DecisionViz.com
    Twitter: @DecisionViz
    LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/leefeinberg

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Posted April 24, 2012 by Lee Feinberg Lee@DecisionViz.com

Eric, yes, the Decision Driven Continuum is designed to help teams start the new (and tough) conversations about changing how they work with data, and how they work together in these transformative times.  Your reference to the "Seven Habits..." also ties to Covey's idea of sharpening the saw, always learning and thinking about new ways to bring your organization to the next level.

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Posted April 23, 2012 by Eric McNeil emcneil@fordham.edu

I liked the Decision Driven Continuum concept because it brings clarity and discipline to the conversation. The industry must shift from effective data management to effective information leadership. Seven Habits of Highly Effective People illustrates an example of an efficient team chopping down trees in a forest in the most effective manner. However, the book says leadership is the guy who climbs up a tree and determines the team is in the wrong forest. One mark of leadership is the ability to change focus accurately in a timely manner.

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