All of us depend on data created elsewhere to do our work. In the face of errors, most people’s natural reaction is to correct such errors in the data they need — after all, when you’re dealing with a mountain of day-in, day-out demands, that seems the fastest, most efficient way to complete the task at hand. The problem is that finding and fixing flawed data soon becomes a permanent fixture. Writ large, it is expensive and time-consuming. Worst of all, it doesn’t work well: Too many errors leak through, rearing their ugly heads later on and leading to larger mistakes, bad decisions, and angry customers.
The alternative is to prevent errors at their sources, obviating the need to find and fix them. While this seems obvious enough, it simply doesn’t occur to most people. That’s where data provocateurs come in — individuals who get their teams, departments, and companies to address data proactively. More people need to step into these roles, and companies need to remove barriers that prevent them from doing so.
In an earlier article I called out “data revolutionaries,” those individuals who disrupt companies by advancing data quality agendas. Since that time, I have ruthlessly reexamined why some people achieve stunning results, others do OK, and a few fail miserably. Those that achieved the best results didn’t think of themselves as revolutionaries at all; they were merely trying to do their jobs better. In the course of their investigations, they realized that doing so required a different approach to data quality. Once they understood this point, they aimed to provoke change, but by working within the existing management system, not blowing it up.
The data provocateurs I’ve worked with form a diverse lot: scientists, HR specialists, people at the lowest management levels, division presidents, relative newcomers, and seasoned veterans. When they started, none of them were thinking specifically about a data revolution, or even an alternative approach to data quality. For example, take Kim Russo, head of marketing at TeleTech Services. The company provides pricing data to telecoms, and Russo wondered what it would take to position her company as the quality leader in that space. She was intrigued by the notion of a rebate for any bad data, but first she had to estimate what it would cost. That required measurement. So she reached out to Stephanie Fetchen, head of operations, who plotted monthly errors on a control chart. Quality was high most months, but they found that errors came in bunches. They then engaged the entire company to find and eliminate root causes and prevent future errors. Russo and Fetchen went further, publishing results on the company website and offering a cookie — not a rebate — to anyone who found an error.
The stories of all provocateurs I’ve met are remarkably similar to Russo’s. Each was dissatisfied with the status quo, looked for ways to improve, and came to question the way his or her team dealt with data. They found the idea of preventing errors appealing, tried it out on a small scale, and expanded their efforts as they learned. All met resistance but persisted until they had a real result, such as million-dollar savings, a tenfold decrease in error rate, or a distinct advantage over competitors.
I urge everyone whose job depends on data to see themselves as a potential provocateur. Data managers and scientists of all sorts (not just data scientists) are obvious candidates, as are people who work in finance, planning, logistics, customer service, and the back office of most companies. I also urge less-obvious candidates to see themselves as provocateurs, such as senior managers who are simply trying to run their departments in the face of reports they don’t trust.
To be clear, simply communicating or complaining about bad data is not enough — you have to act. Most companies don’t manage data very well, and there is no shortage of iconoclasts, malcontents, and rabble-rousers who are all too happy to point this out. They have plenty of ideas about what others should do, but they sit safely on the sidelines when it comes to doing the actual work, refusing to engage in any meaningful way. Provocateurs take the opposite approach. They keep their mouths shut and focus on doing their jobs better, which can then spread the practice throughout the company.
This is not an easy task. I’ve met hundreds of people, maybe thousands, who are dissatisfied with the status quo and have good ideas but are hesitant to push their ideas. They fear that if they fail they’ll miss an opportunity for a raise or promotion. But these fears are unfounded. In fact, the senior managers that I’ve spoken to know their organizations need new ideas, and almost all are horrified that their charges would hold back.
I’d recommend that provocateurs get over these concerns by keeping bosses informed, accepting help from others, and sharing credit for success. Start small, so that any failures happen quickly and quietly. Learn and gain confidence as you go. Ask hard questions, separate solid answers from fluff, keep an open mind to all potential improvements, and persist in the face of resistance. The practical reality is that all new ideas attract heavy resistance, so your chances are better when you have a solid result to show for your efforts.
Driving data quality across an entire company takes top-down leadership, but provocateurs are a crucial first step. Although many end up introducing revolutionary ideas that can change their companies, that is not their initial intent. More people need to take on these roles, and managers at all levels need to remove the fear that keeps people from doing so.
via HBR.org http://ift.tt/1WGETSS