Data is a major buzzword across the modern economy. Each year, companies invest billions in data manipulation tools and analysts to manage them. However, despite the rise of data collection and analysis, most organizations still don’t make data-driven decisions. They like looking at the data, but they don’t necessarily take action based on it.
This can infuriate business analysts and data specialists who spend hours collecting data and making a case, only for it to get ignored. Many struggle to be heard and can’t convince their leaders to take action.
Keep reading if you feel like you don’t have a voice in your company and it’s time for your leaders to pay attention.
BAs Across the Economy Struggle to Be Heard
The first thing to understand is that you’re not alone. According to the Business Application Research Center, companies across the world have trouble making data-driven decisions. For example, less than half of all companies say that information is highly valued in decision making or treated as an asset to an organization.
Furthermore, almost 60 percent of managers say they base half of their regular business decisions on gut feelings rather than on experience or data.
Gut bias causes significant problems within a company. Neil A. Morgan, professor and PetSmart Distinguished Chair of Marketing at the Indiana University's Kelley School of Business found that marketing managers and other leaders in customer-facing roles overestimate their customers’ satisfaction.
This leads to unrealistic expectations and unfounded optimism about future ideas. It also means customer issues are left unresolved: Management either ignores them (preferring its own gut bias); is unaware they exist (due to communication breakdown); or doesn’t think the issues are serious enough to address (based on a fundamental disconnect as to what drives customer satisfaction).
These unrealistic expectations can also turn BAs into the “bad guy” within companies, as they’re the ones providing bad news and realistic outlooks.
There is good news for business analysts trying to break into a gut-driven company. More than two-thirds of people believe data will be the main business driver in the future. They may not listen today, but there is hope for tomorrow.
HiPPOs Drive Decisions and Opinions
Along with gut bias, business analysts also end up fighting what author Bernard Marr calls the HiPPO effect, where the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion takes precedence over any actual data or fact-based ideas in the room.
Marr says that when there is a HiPPO in the room (typically someone who has more experience or is in a leadership role) their opinions will cause others to hold back their thoughts, or even change their beliefs entirely. Not only do BAs wrestle with the HiPPO effect themselves, they also have to work to maintain allies and supporters during their presentation because of it.
Some Managers Use Data as a Weapon
Not all managers are afraid of data; some work it to actively support their own intuitions and opinions.
“While some managers naturally go with their instinct, there is a significant portion who first trust their gut, then persuade their researchers or an external consultancy to produce reports that confirm the decision that they already made,” Mona Lebied writes at Datapine.
This isn’t using objective data at all, but rather “cooking” it to uphold positions. In this case, a BA who presents conflicting data is likely to be ignored.
There Needs to be a Balance Between Data and Gut Instinct
Interestingly, it’s possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. Paolo Gaudiano, founder of the cloud-based software platform Aleria, describes companies that embrace data for all of their decisions as the “big data, little brain” phenomenon. In this case, managers almost completely reject their own experience and expertise in favor of findings from data analysis
People can’t survive when they take emotion out of the decision-making process. The team at DataHero, which champions data usage and visualization, explains that people who are unable to process their emotions or understand how their body reacts to certain stimuli struggle to make any decisions, much less good ones.
Without emotions, we don’t become fully-optimized and logical robots, we simply crash and rely on other people to make choices. Companies don’t need to banish the “gut instinct” from the boardroom, but they should allow data to inform the gut-based decision.
8 Ways to Use Data to Compete With Gut Instinct
Most companies still struggle to make data-driven decisions. The idea of using data to guide the business is still new, and many leaders still use old-school ways to come up with solutions.
Recent reports by EY found that 81 percent of people think data should be at the heart of all decision-making. Despite this, only 23 percent of organizations have implemented an organization-wide data strategy.
It’s perfectly normal for your company to hire you to manage data analytics only to ignore your ideas because data usage isn’t something the organization is ready for yet. Your job is to help leadership transition into the modern era by getting them to listen to you.
By following these eight steps, you can start to get noticed, and move the decision-making process away from your CEO’s gut.
Focus on One Problem At a Time
Some employees make the mistake of pitching new plans every week. After a while, the decision-maker tunes them out and prioritizes what their gut thinks is best.
“If you know that you face an upper limit on recognition, be cognizant of which ideas are really good, the ones you want to devote your resources to,” Ethan Burns, associate professor at University of Texas at Austin, advises.
Try to channel your resources toward one project or idea and build support around it. If the idea is approved and executed correctly, then you can use the clout generated from it to promote your next big idea.
Identify People Who Are Aware of the Problem
Ryan Creamore, sales director at Function Point Productivity Software, says one of the most common phrases new employees might hear is “I have been saying that for years” when they approach colleagues with problems.
It may not be that senior colleagues don’t like your analysis, they simply might have given up on any future changes. “Your colleagues have at one point or another also proposed solutions and have been shot down,” Creamore writes.
Actually, this could be a good thing. It means you already have people who agree with your ideas. The next step is motivating them to support your plans.
Tie Your Data Back to Existing Problems and Goals
Make sure your presentation aligns with the overall company goals and directives. Pay attention during town hall meetings and quarterly updates to understand senior management’s goals and pain points. Then you can then present your analysis as data based off of their plans.
Anett Grant, CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc., emphasizes the importance of aligning your goals with upper-management’s. Plus, you can present your analyses as solutions or insights to their problems, not new problems they need to be aware of.
Identify Cognitive Bias in Your Own Research
You can’t fight bias with bias. Cooking data to defend your supervisor’s gut decision is just as bad as you using your gut instinct to assemble data. Entrepreneur Jayson DeMers encourages data analysts to look for cognitive bias in their market research, which include:
Confirmation bias: or interpreting information based on existing beliefs.
Irrational escalation: or dismissing research if it doesn’t agree with existing beliefs.
Framing: positioning questions in a certain way as to achieve desirable results.
All of these biases can affect your data in the short run and your reputation in the long run. BAs need to be objective and fair with their results, whether the information agrees with your previous beliefs or not.
Our critical thinking skills class gives you tools and techniques to help identify your own bias and think more critically about data.
Create Engaging Presentations With Context
Dan DiFilippo, PwC markets leader, implores data analysts and BAs to approach management as humans, discussing problems with conversations instead of endless statistics.
“Data owners who walk into the CEO’s office with a 40-page spreadsheet probably won’t be back for a second meeting,” he says.
Furthermore, 52 percent of CEOs say they discount data they don’t understand. BAs have a big enough challenge overcoming gut feelings — they certainly can’t afford to lose the attention of upper-management because of a lack of visuals or a clear story tied to the data.
Incorporate Human Insights Into Your Data
If you’re working with CEOs and managers who don’t understand or appreciate data, strengthen your case with human insights and qualitative information.
Jean Pierre Kloppers, CEO of BrandsEye, admits that there are faults in algorithmic systems and that data can easily be corrupted if not analyzed properly. He encourages BAs to provide personal insight into the data and to use a human touch to create their analyses.
“Having recognised that machines alone are often unable to deliver reliable data, we can integrate human insights from local dialects, slang and modes of expression,” he writes.
Screenshots, quotes, survey responses, and even testimonials can all provide a qualitative touch to defend your data.
Put Yourself in Management’s Shoes
Fear of the truth is one reason many leaders dig in to their own beliefs and double down on existing plans instead of following what the data says. No one wants to admit that they’re wrong, and these admissions can have very public consequences for leaders.
Meta S. Brown, author of Data Mining for Dummies, says even executives worry about losing their jobs. This fear of the truth comes with a variety of other fears including fear for their jobs and fear of a damaged reputation.
By presenting data delicately and focusing on solutions, you can become an ally for managers instead of threats to their careers.
Know Your Audience’s Relationship With Data
Every presentation in your career will be different depending on who you speak to within an organization.
Jasmine Henry, emerging tech specialist, encourages data analysts to tailor their message to their audience based on their relationship with data. If your CEO is data-phobic, then focusing on context and visuals can help. However, some leaders will want to see the numbers and will review pages of spreadsheets to feel more secure.
If you can adapt, then you can win people over.
Some companies have an easier time making data-driven decisions than others. Being persistent in your messaging and presenting your ideas and data clearly will increase your chance of creating change.
Our critical thinking skills class gives you tools and techniques to help identify your own bias and makes you a more trusted partner.