Why I always tell my data analytics clients: ‘Data is a distraction’

Business Intelligence (BI)

Imagine you have all the data need to know everything about your company. It's set up perfectly in the fastest database available.

Is your first move to make a report about metrics such as revenue, commissions, or expenses? Instead, think about the action you would take from having that information.

I’m going to let you peek behind the curtain—here’s what I tell my clients as we start every project:

  1. Making decisions and taking action are what matter most.

  2. The goal is to look at your data for the least amount of time.

  3. The questions you ask determine the quality of your actions.

These three ideas are typically the opposite of how my clients have been working with data. It’s the same for all companies, Fortune 10 and startups, profit and nonprofit.

The three ideas are a foundation for how YOU can make data actionable. In this article, I give you practical steps to put the ideas to work immediately. Only after following these steps can you can create a visual that helps you take action.

You don’t have to be an expert analyst or data visualization guru to take advantage of what I’m sharing. And it’s OK if you don’t do everything exactly how I show you. If something resonates, figure out how to use it. It’s more important to make a small change than to get caught up in a process.

1. Making decisions and taking action are what matter most

A good portion of my work is helping people see that data is no longer the star and now has a supporting role. Of course, data is important, but it’s the means to an end; it’s not the end.

With so much data available, how do you decide what to use? My clients have usually created a dashboard that lets users select from a range of options (see image below). It’s very easy to do with software such as Tableau, Keynote, and Excel. But searching through an endless series of combinations until something catches the eye is the proverbial “looking for a needle in a haystack.” It’s not efficient and not effective. There’s a better way…

Example of a dashboard just looking to show the data trend

Example of a dashboard just looking to show the data trend (Source)

Complete this statement:

“If I could only know this one thing about my business _____________,

the action I might take based on the result is _____________.”

For example:

“If I could only know [this one thing about my business] how much sales are changing every month,

the action I might take based on the result is increase marketing dollars for poor performers.”

Write down a few answers and pick one. Don’t get hung up on whether it’s really the No. 1. You just need something to work with for the rest of this article.

2. The goal is to look at your data for the least amount of time

After they have spent a good amount of time and money collecting, organizing, and cleaning data, this suggestion usually has folks giving me a funny look. Think about it this way: If you could quickly know that everything was 100 percent OK with your business, then why spend more time looking at data than needed?

Complete this statement:

“I would only consider [taking the action] if __________.”

For example:

“I would only consider increasing marketing dollars for poor performers if two of the last three months have a revenue change of negative 5 percent or greater

Yes, you have to be this specific. Otherwise, how do you know if the result is good or bad; if it’s really something that would cause you to make a change?

3. The questions you ask determine the quality of your actions

Once we can see that a product meets the criteria, we don’t know for sure that we are going to increase marketing dollars. It’s helped us get focus, and now we have to think hard about exactly what information is needed before deciding to act.

At this point, my clients quickly fall back into their old habits of relying on data; it’s their comfort zone. Here’s all that’s needed—”revenue change the last three months.” Yes, it does answer the question. But, is it enough to go ahead and increase marketing dollars? Not if you want to make a good decision!

So, they list more data which they are certain is then enough:

  • Sales
  • Profit
  • Marketing dollars

Here’s a powerful alternative that will help you stop talking about data.

Complete this question:

“What answers will help me decide to [take the action]?

For example:

“What answers will help me decide to increase marketing dollars for poor performers?”

  • What is the monthly revenue change for the last three months?
  • Has revenue been going down the last year, or is this a new shift?
  • How much have we spent on marketing?
  • Are we over or under the marketing budget?
  • What is the total profit and profit each month?
  • What is the sales volume each month?
  • What is the revenue by region each month?

You MUST list at least five questions. It’s tempting to go with the first one that comes to mind, but you will find that spending a few minutes to explore more thoroughly will take you in directions that were not obvious at first. For example, above, the issue of profit came up.

Spend at most 15 minutes; that’s enough time to get a good range of questions. Next, prioritize them to make sure you work on the most important ones. Remember, you can only put three to four charts on a page.

In the case of my client in the example above, we decided to work with these questions:

  • What is the monthly revenue change for the last year?
  • What does the monthly revenue trend look like?
  • What is the total profit and when is it at least $10,000?

Bringing it all together

Example dashboard created following these three steps

Example dashboard created following these three steps (Source)

This is the first of several views we created. Other views addressed some of the remaining questions. You will find that one dashboard isn’t going to give you the complete set of information to make a decision.

There are certainly other ways to visualize the data. What I want you to see is > how the approach I’ve outlined for you to follow can lead to significantly more > actionable outcomes. Excelsior!

Buyers guide
Thomas LaMonte
Thomas LaMonte
Senior Content Analyst at Gartner
This buyers guide will help you understand the key features of business intelligence and analytics (BI) software, its benefits and challenges, information on who uses BI software, and industry trends.
Case studies
Thomas LaMonte
Thomas LaMonte
Senior Content Analyst at Gartner
Our Business Intelligence (BI) Analyst shares real-world case studies of BI implementations.