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Rethinking the Role of Visualization Part 2 of a 3-Part Series on the Blue Ocean Strategy for Decision Visualization

Originally published October 9, 2013

In the first article of this series on the Blue Ocean strategy for decision visualization, Visualization: New Ways to Weave Data into Your Business, I discussed the first three of 11 steps to transform your organization from being data-driven and toward a decision visualization model. The approach is based on the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. The 11 steps are listed below, and this article will cover steps four through seven that address rethinking the role of visualization and how it transforms working relationships.

  1. Visualization Training
  2. Executive Directive
  3. Bold Design
  4. IT Reporting 
  5. Storytelling
  6. Conversation
  7. Interactivity 
  8. Openness
  9. Speed
  10. Lifecycle Management
  11. Customer Focus

4. IT Reporting

You must eliminate the phrase “IT reporting.” The reality: IT doesn’t want to do reporting, the business people don’t want IT to do reporting, and reporting itself isn’t useful as standalone information that doesn’t tie directly to strategy. Since the solution is not simply telling people to stop saying the words, your actions will be the catalyst. If you followed my advice in the previous article to have IT and business teams take visualization software training together, that was a great first step.

You might be asking yourself, “Why does IT need to take software training if the business will be connecting to the data, running analysis and building visualizations?” More than ever, the relationship between IT and business is symbiotic and co-dependent. IT will deliver a much better data product by understanding how the data is being consumed – specifically how that could impact databases and educating business users on nuances of working with the data (not telling them what the data means or how to run an analysis).

Keep in mind that while business folks want to work with the data, they generally don’t want to be involved with setting up the data or metadata. There is a critical role for IT here to work in a highly consultative way to understand how the business operates and makes decisions. This isn’t about asking what data they want. Your company can only benefit when more people understand the business.

5. Storytelling

You’re probably hearing a lot about storytelling; maybe this will soon replace talk about big data. The idea of storytelling has been around longer than any business intelligence (BI) tool, so why is it gaining momentum now? Visualization naturally enables telling stories because it helps reveal meaning that has been hidden in tables of data. Also, effective storytelling is fluid, and building fluid PowerPoint slides is hard. Interactive features of visualization software let you easily shape movement through the visuals. We will come back to this idea...

Storytelling is really a rallying-call about clear communication – because visualization software makes it dangerously easy to produce high volumes of charts. If there is no context or intent driving the visualizations, it’s the same as just talking aimlessly and losing your audience’s attention really fast. Like each of the 11 steps, getting good at storytelling is going to take time and practice. Here are some practical starter tips:
Write an outline – before prototyping and building any visuals. Have a title for each dashboard and titles for each visual on the dashboard. This helps you see if the story makes sense. You cannot make a series of visuals and then figure out how to stitch them together. The titles must drive toward making a decision or answering a question, replacing the common practice of titles that are about the data.

 Data-Driven Titles
 Decision-Driven Titles
Y/Y Sales
Which region’s sales beat targets by
at least 10%?
Profit for week of October 1 Should we cut products where profits
are decreasing?
Customer ratings
Which superstar agents should become

This approach creates an entirely different context for the story – and, in turn, causes you to create entirely different visuals. In many cases, you also realize that decision-driven titles create the need to work with a broader set of data than what’s required to make a chart for single reference data point like sales or profit.

Now, here’s the hard, but life-changing, part of storytelling – accepting the truth. For too long, organizations (and people) have been able to hide behind mountains of data. You are going to learn things about your company that will shake up long-held beliefs and assumptions. How organizations choose to address the new normal will be tied to many factors. I often tell clients they need courage and guts to drive meaningful change. And you thought visualization was about making better pictures…

6. Conversation

Every great story has conflict (the new normal) and an eventual resolution (decision, action). There are, of course, many dramatic ways that conflict may be resolved. In business we typically resolve conflict through conversation – which truly tests your courage. Yet, in the workplace, we tend to avoid conflict. Do not underestimate this opportunity to lead a change in behavior across your organization.

The visual story you create is not meant to stand alone; it needs your voice, literally. Provide the narrative, which does not mean reading from text-dense slides. Ask the audience questions to get them talking and reacting to the story. I’m not saying to decide-by-consensus, but rather that multiple viewpoints definitely enrich the conversation.

These are skills that must be practiced and might put people out of their comfort zone more than any of the 11 points. I’m raising the idea here so that you can bake this into your strategy and organization planning now, rather than trying to shoehorn in the necessary changes later.

Here’s an interesting idea. If you can’t deliver the narrative in a meeting and need to send a snapshot image, include a voice/video recording. It could be a standalone message or maybe a screen capture of you walking through the material. Invite others to record a response instead of typing out an email.

7. Interactivity

Conversations typically spawn a sequel or add a few chapters to the story. Before management agrees to make a significant decision, you may need to dig deeper into specific points or answer entirely new questions. Interactivity helps evolve the conversation by moving through the storyline, supporting planned detours and dealing with unexpected plot twists. I present two meanings for interactivity of visualization software: a) features to filter data, have information pop-ups and alter the visual in other ways; and b) the ease of use to work with data in real-time, i.e., during conversations.

When telling a story, you have to anticipate and facilitate detours. Think through how others might react to the story and build support into your visuals. I’m not advocating simply turning on filters for every data point or cramming information on the screen. Be thoughtful about your approach. Then, you must walk through using the different filters and information to self-check that the story is complete, uncover clarifications and avoid being surprised (to the extent possible). This is the same as rehearsing a presentation and the old saying, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Again, transforming your organization is less about the visualization and more about the ecosystem of activities that drive decision making. The work is very different – and it’s exciting!

Ease of Use
In meetings, you will no longer hear, “Let me get back to you on that.” The software provides everyone access to data and enables leading an exploration of new ideas in real time. This new level of collaboration will have a major impact on your organization by creating an environment biased toward action and accountability. This is a radical shift – be aware that you may find some resistance. By human nature, people will be uncomfortable having their performance, or their team’s performance, on the big screen. To lower defensiveness, make sure conversations stay focused on solving a problem or achieving a specific outcome. Those who ran from negative results will eventually embrace the opportunity of creating a turnaround story for themselves.

Set Your Action Plan

We covered four more points – each dealing with how visualization impacts organizational dynamics and working relationships. The IT and business teams’ success are more intertwined than ever. Build your storytelling skills and become decision-driven. Encourage conversations and practice, practice, practice. Lastly, interactivity provides the foundation to create multiple plotlines and truly work in a collaborative way. Excelsior!

  • 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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