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Analytics Magazine

Forum: Analyzing analysts: dreamer vs. pragmatist

May/June 2014

Gary CokinsBy Gary Cokins

Do you have two imaginary voices that are on each of your shoulders telling you opposite messages? I do. And the voices are conflicting. One is a message of positive hope and possibilities, and the other one is of negative discouragement.

The topic and context for each message involves the frustratingly slow adoption rate for applying analytics and progressive enterprise performance management (EPM) methods. Examples of EPM methods are the balanced scorecard with key performance indicators (KPIs), channel and customer profitability analysis, driver-based rolling financial forecasts and lean management techniques.

I much better enjoy the inspiring messenger compared to the naysayer one. Who wouldn’t? But I have two ears, so I must listen to both voices.

The negative voice is the clear-eyed pragmatist. The positive voice is the creative wild-eyed dreamer. Using a jail prisoner analogy, the pragmatist sees the prison window bars as barriers while the dreamer sees the stars in the night sky.

What I am writing about is the struggle that analysts and EPM project managers in all industries have. It is with the acceptance of their ideas, methods and findings by often suspicious work colleagues and managers, some of whom exhibit substantial resistance to change. (You know the type. Their motto is, “We don’t do it that way here.”)

Behavioral Change Management

Organizations seem hesitant to adopt analytics and EPM methods. Is it evaluation paralysis or brain freeze? Most organizations make the mistake believing that applying analytics and EPM methods are 90 percent math and 10 percent organizational change management with employee behavior alteration. In reality it is the other way around – it is more likely 5 percent math and 95 percent about people.

A problem with removing behavioral barriers to deploy analytics and EPM methods is that almost none of us have training or experience as organizational change management specialists. We are not sociologists or psychologists. However, we are learning to become like them. Our focus should be on the “why to implement” and its motivating effects on organizations rather than the “how to.” The challenge is how to alter people’s attitudes.

One way to remove cultural barriers is to acknowledge a problem that all organizations suffer from an imbalance with how much emphasis they should place on being smart rather than being healthy. Most organizations over-emphasize trying to be smart by hiring MBAs and management consultants with a quest to achieve a run-it-by-the-numbers management style. These types of organizations miss the relevance of how important is to also be healthy – assuring that employee morale is high and employee turnover is low. To be healthy they also need to assure that managers and employees are deeply involved in understanding the leadership team’s strategic intent and direction setting. Healthy behavior improves the likelihood of employee buy-in and commitment. Analytics and EPM methods are much more than numbers, dials, pulleys and levers. People matter . . . a lot.

When organizations embark upon applying or expanding its use of analytics and EPM methods, I believe they need two plans: (1) an implementation plan, and (2) a communication plan. The second plan is arguably much more important than the first.

What Defines Success?

Overcoming barriers is no small task. Cultural and behavioral obstacles not only include that resistance to change but also include some co-workers who fear the consequences of knowing the truth. But driving social change in others is achievable. It requires motivation to want to make a difference in an organization’s performance and to provide others with insights and foresight for them to make better decisions.

Overcoming barriers also requires influencing others to be more open-minded. After all, one can never choose an alternative that has not even been considered.

Although I am an optimist by nature, I am also a perpetual worrier. I cannot shut out the pessimistic voice on my one shoulder constantly warning me about what can go wrong. Maybe that is OK because that voice forces me to think about contingency plans to cope with unplanned and unexpected events and outcomes.

I believe we all need both voices. Just do not shut down the positive voice. It is a corny line, but where there is a will there is a way. Try not to only see the prison window bars but also the stars.


Gary Cokins (gcokins@garycokins.com) is the founder of Analytics-Based Performance Management LLC, an advisory firm. A member of INFORMS, he is an internationally recognized expert, speaker and author in advanced cost management and performance improvement systems. He was previously a principal consultant with SAS. For more of Cokins’ unique look at the world, visit his website at www.garycokins.com. A version of this article appeared in Information Management.

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