Data Driven Leadership: Organizing for Data

I had the opportunity to attend the BEHAVE conference a few months ago. The event featured many thought leaders at the intersection of digital marketing and behavioral science. For anyone with a career or deep interest in digital marketing, such as myself, I can’t imagine a better conference.

Now that I’ve had time to let it all sink in, one of the key themes that continues to stand out is the role leadership plays in digital marketing success. The specific message was that leaders need to empower those in their organization to make decisions, leveraging the best available data.

Translation: “in my organization, data makes the decisions”.

This is obviously nothing new — and certainly not unique to the world of digital — but what struck me was that the most compelling presenters were able to articulate a detailed model for how their organization works, and how data flows through it. Maybe it was modesty or just the fact that we weren’t there to discuss operating models or data, but one could be forgiven for walking away believing that it is just a matter of will. Just decide to empower your team, and it will happen. However, I know from experience that this is very challenging.

The devil is ALWAYS in the details

Every leader in every organization SHOULD want to empower those working for them to make every day decisions. This frees up leaders to focus on the strategic aspects of their business. Elevating the role of employees can only contribute to morale. But those devilish details seem to always find their way to the fore. Any organization that isn’t starting from scratch will inevitably be strapped with legacy systems, organizational boundaries and processes. These lead to team, data and decision silos. I often find that leadership would love nothing more than to empower its digital marketing team to experiment, disrupt and react as nimbly as possible to market changes. What I also find is that downstream implications frequently stand in the way. Giving a new team autonomy and authority impacts everything from in-store operations to eCommerce merchandising, and undoubtedly step on the toes of those legacy teams.

So what’s a leader to do? This Digital Transformation stuff / pivoting to become a data driven organization can be hard. I know I sound like a consultant here, but it’s all about communication and governance. The goal needs to be that a junior person armed with the right data and insights can overrule a much more senior person trying to make a decision based on their gut.

Step 1 is unquestionably to centralize data, but that is just table stakes. Having teams organized in the right way so that the right people can analyze the data and COMMUNICATE MEANINGFUL BUSINESS OUTCOMES is where it gets tricky. Simply hiring data analysts to mine data isn’t going to cut it. Ensuring their insights get surfaced to relevant stakeholders, including a cross-functional body with decision making power is where real value starts to emerge.

Communication can help as well. Effective communication is often not immediately welcome news to incumbents within the organization. It likely involves telling someone that there is a piece of their job that they no longer do. This is probably an aspect of their role that they hold near and dear to their heart. It is a difficult message to deliver. Teams need to understand long term visions in order to buy in to the difficult messages. Hearing that the organization is better off without you in charge of a function you used to control is a bitter pill to swallow. Further, incumbents will be instrumental to the success of any transformation so getting their buy in on the future vision is paramount.

BUT THESE NEW PEOPLE DON’T GET OUR BRAND!!! Of course they don’t, because they are new. Which is why they need to be trained, coached and the right processes need to be put into place to ensure that those brand experts are involved to prevent a catastrophic failure.

None of this is easy. It’s not supposed to be easy. But it is critical. These organizational changes need to be made or you can sit around and wait for a start up or one of the four giants — Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple — to come for your business. As explained by the many talented individuals that presented at the BEHAVE conference, it is attainable in all industries.