Fear of Analytics

As an analyst, and in particular, as a manager of analysts, when you enter a business that has not previously been using web or any other analytics, you are going to encounter a very strange emotion – fear. And I’m not talking about the typical “new job jitters” you might feel. I’m not even talking about you. I’m talking about all the people whose work you are going to be analyzing. They are going to be afraid of you, your work, and what your work might uncover about the success of their efforts.

They are going to be scared and fearful, even feel like their jobs are threatened. When you feel like your job security is threatened, you think about your family, and what would happen to them if you lose your job. These are very powerful feelings and they should not be ignored; you have to understand them, prepare for them, and deal with them.

I know this probably sounds very strange to you. After all, as analysts, we are simply seeking the “truth”. We’re not trying to “hurt” anybody, heck, we’re trying to help people, right? Most analysts are helpful people by nature, they like to help people, that’s what they do for a living. But hopefully you can see how “helping somebody do a better job through analysis” can imply, to the people affected, that they are not doing the best they can right now. And that means there is a danger, in their minds, that they may be “exposed” by your analysis, and criticized for the job they are currently doing.

What a mess, huh?

You are there to help, and they think you are there to hurt.

Fortunately, you can do something about this situation if you understand it before you go in, and are prepared for it.

Let’s break down how this works in people’s minds.

Human Nature and Accountability

Analytics bring accountability to people’s work – often for the first time, they are being held directly accountable for their decisions.

Accountability breeds fear – what if I am not doing the right thing? What if I am exposed as a “bad marketer” or a “bad designer”?

Fear suppresses new ideas – this is of course the exact opposite of what you expect to happen; you expect that analysis will breed new ideas. But if this fear of accountability is not addressed, what happens is people recoil, they pull back, they want to go with the “tried and true” as opposed to experiment. As you can imagine, this is not helpful in a continuous improvement / testing scenario.

OK, so what can you do about this situation?

Whether coming in as an analyst or a manager of analysts, the first thing you can do is bring this idea up in your interview. You don’t have to go into the gory details, but you can say something like:

“Often people are a little bit nervous when their work is going to be analyzed for the first time. I’d like to know that if I come on board, you will talk to your people about what this change means to you and them, and how they should not fear this change at all. If I’m hired, I can give you more specifics about what I’d like you to say before I start, but essentially what we need your people to understand is that it’s OK to fail, because using analytics, we will learn from each failure”.

That statement ought to make the interviewer sit up straight, don’t you think? Probably will differentiate you quite a bit from the next candidate…

But really, here is the absolute root of this whole problem: when moving from a low accountability to a high accountability environment, the primary management challenge is to change the definition of failure.  Change the definition of failure. Think about it. If you can change the definition of failure, then there is no reason for people to be fearful. In fact, it’s quite liberating, isn’t it? It’s OK to fail, because what we’re going to do is test and measure, test and measure. We need failure to teach us what works. Without failure, there is no learning process.

If there is no learning process, there is no point in analyzing, is there?

So we must change the definition of failure. With analytics in play, failure is a learning experience; we not only expect failure, we also embrace failure, because we want to learn.

Think about the difference between arriving to start the job after your boss has given this speech to the other employees versus arriving after nothing has been said other than “we’re bringing in an analyst”. Don’t you think your life will be 10x easier and more productive in the former situation?

That’s why I’d spring it in the interview. Sure, it makes you look like a genius compared to the other candidates, but think of it this way – do you want to work at a place where your boss is not going to give this speech before you get there?  Not me, man. You will not be happy at that kind of place. If they’re not going to give this speech, they’re not really ready for analytics. Who knows what political reason there is for why they are hiring – it doesn’t matter. If they are unwilling to deliver this message, it will be impossible for you to do your job.

Just think about it. As a customer behavior consultant (online and offline customer data analyst), I will absolutely refuse to take a job when I don’t get assurance that this discussion will happen. Why? Because when this discussion is left out, we often get sub-optimal results. Simple. You don’t have to beat me with a stick too many times for me to learn something – after all, I’m an analyst!

But It’s Not OK to Fail!

“I can’t tell my people it’s OK to fail, I will lose control and then I will get fired” says your interviewer. “How can I still manage the business and hit my numbers if everybody is walking around thinking it is OK to fail?” Um, perhaps a good point. At least for a manager with no experience dealing with the analytical culture. So, you might need to explain this idea further. Here are some ways to counteract this “loss of control” mindset. You can also explain:

* Initial failure is a vaccine against future and perhaps more expensive failure. You want to “fail small” in a test and find out something will not work so you don’t “fail big” when there is a lot of money on the line

* Failure is part of the continuous improvement process. Without failure, we will never get better. It’s that simple. But we want thoughtful, documented failure. We don’t just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. When we test something, there is a reason for the test, and the reason is documented. There has to be a logical thought process behind each failure. “Logical failures” are nothing to fear. Poorly conceived failures will get more attention.

* Obviously failure is OK, but repeating the same failures over and over is not. We must learn from failure and try something different next time.

What happens over the long run if you don’t get this “failure issue” out and on the table for everybody to see? Here is what I generally see happen:

* Humans dislike failure and will try to avoid it like the plague. This means they will “freeze up” and seek out least common denominator “safe harbors” that have (perceived) immunity from failure.

* This attitude smothers creative problem solving, and risk-taking disappears. “What works” is relentlessly copied – because it’s “safe”, it’s been proven, there is no reason to fear the analysis or being exposed as “incompetent”.

* The business area becomes lethargic, with no innovation – the exact opposite of the intent in bringing analytics to the table in the first place. “All about the numbers” ends up making people feel powerless instead of powerful, the exact opposite of the desired result.

So take care. Get the fear of failure thing on the table. If you are the manager, talk people through how you view managing the business using analytics, and what they can expect. If you are not the manager, advise management on the steps they can take up front.

Here are some ideas you might want to think about:

* If you sense a high level of anxiety about the transition, you could declare a “free pass zone” to get people used to managing by the numbers. For example, “For the next three months, we are going to use the analytics to see where we are with the business. No decisions that were made prior to using analytics will be criticized. We are going to learn what we are good at and what we are not so good at, and then take it forward from there.”

* The “free zone” idea often brings down the initial wall and gets people engaged in the whole idea of accountability without creating fear. You will also find out during this period which staff members seem to be on board and which don’t seem like they are going to make the transition. You can work through your options during the zone and then get down to business.

* Consider creating a centralized place to post interesting information during your initial “discovery period”, which may coincide with the free zone. I’m not talking about a “central repository”, I’m talking about real life tangible charts and graphs on a bulletin board, perhaps in the break room or similar environment. This encourages people to talk about the data and get more comfortable with the idea of analytics.

If it’s a common area, you can always make comments to people, or in the best of worlds, they actually ask you questions about the data you post. This is a much more interactive way to engage people than to e-mail reports to them. Eventually, this can turn into a “Wall of Fame” for your best efforts, and perhaps in a more mature environment, a “Wall of Shame” for the real stinkers that your group comes up with.

Good luck with moving to a more accountable business model!

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