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Creating a Data Culture

change Jan 29, 2022

Written by Roxanne Brown

I made the long flight from DC to San Francisco on a trip for work. I was going to a Data Governance conference in Japantown. Larry English would be speaking but that’s not why I came. Mr. English, who passed away in 2020,  was considered the data quality guru at the time. TIQM was his thing: Total Information Quality Management. He’d been advising our company for a few years, sometimes teaching long, slide-filled classes jam-packed with charts and graphs to help us learn the concepts beyond reading his book. We would listen to him and pour over his book trying to understand what he was advising and how to implement it at our company. It was daunting. It seemed like it was going to take forever to get traction. Our company had a patience limit of 18 months for a significant outcome. Our short attention span drove our culture.

A Change Practitioner in a Data Land

I wasn’t a data expert. Implementation was my work. I was a Change Management practitioner working for the Data Center of Excellence. The company I worked for was 12 years old by then and had grown to 10,000 people. At that point, our tech was quite messy. Not unusual for a fast-growing company that hired ambitious analytic problem solvers. There was a single slide someone created that illustrated the messiness. It showed how all of our tech connected and worked together. It was a visual that was dense with lines connecting applications, servers, and data centers. We lovingly referred to it as “the spaghetti” slide. It was obvious “the spaghetti” was a problem now and for the CEO’s growth ambitions. We were trying to fix it.

When I got to the conference, I wondered why I was there. I didn’t know anyone and I wasn’t sent there on a mission. I suspected this was my boss, in his kindness, attempting to nudge my career in this promising direction. I clearly appreciated the data work. Years before, I dove into it to learn as much as I could about data quality and the data community so that I could understand the changes that needed to be implemented, what the data community would need to do differently and how they would need to influence others to their point of view. It was conceptual and complex, and it needed to be made tangible and worth business leaders paying attention to it. I loved a problem like that.

At the conference instead of being bored by the presentations, I noticed I understood a lot of the technical jargon. What surprised me the most was that the content of the workshops, discussion panels, and talks was about implementation successes. The stories were not really about data governance itself but rather case studies for evolving an organization to become more and more mature in their data and information management practices and seeing the benefits of it. This is Change work.

At that conference, I realized how relevant my work was for the data quality field. I realized I could spend a lot of time diving in further and it would be satisfying. That was in 2006.

Data Strategy is Really a Change Strategy 

In the 15 years since I’ve seen this pattern repeated. I’ve been to analytics conferences where they told stories of failed implementations not because of the quality of the analytics but because of the quality of the change. 

In a recent Data Strategy & Culture webinar I did with my partner Ed Cook and our friend Reid Colson at UDig, Reid talked about how it can be tempting to stay focused on the logic of data:

“...being a data person you almost always think, I come from a place of logic, and the data is what the data is, and the data is right so therefore you should just accept it. Sometimes not thinking about the relationship side of things. To create change it’s not always a head argument, it’s a heart argument.”

It can be tempting to avoid the people aspect of implementing a data strategy because it isn’t straightforward even when it seems like it really should be. The problem of managing change is solvable though. In my experience, the keys to success are the following:

1: Convince them

People must believe that the benefits of the change will outweigh the work it will take to get there. This is especially true if the change hasn’t been tried before (like implementing a Data Strategy for the first time) or tried and failed. To do that, people must experience the benefits or witness them firsthand. A demonstration (or direct experience) of change benefits supersedes logical argument. This is why starting with a pilot or a quick win is usually the right way to go, especially for changes that are large and conceptual and especially if that quick win will resolve a pain that people are aware of and are annoyed by. That will get the right attention. This direct experience also supports a change practitioner’s case when they calculate the ROI of investing in Change Management for the implementation.

2: Respect them

People must feel respected in the change process. Everyone involved will want to feel respected both in their current role in the company and the role they play in making the change happen. You show respect by attempting to understand the impact of the change from their point of view and doing what’s reasonable to make it easier for them to change and influence others to change. That doesn’t mean they’re allowed to ignore the change or endlessly throw up roadblocks, but if that is their initial reaction, it’s a clue for you to investigate the impact implications. Stay curious-first rather than judging-first. This will lead to useful actionable insights. Change practitioners refer to this as a Change Impact Assessment.

3: Show that you're paying attention

Obvious ongoing monitoring (measurement and scrutiny) and encouragement (communication and recognition) combine to apply the right amount of pressure on people to make progress. Without this, people will assume the change is not that important and will focus on the other priorities competing for their attention.

4: Demonstrate your alignment

Before change can happen the leader must change first. People pay even more attention to the words and actions of their leaders when change is announced. That’s because they’re trying to make sense of what’s happening and understand how they can be successful in the new world leaders describe. The most influential leaders are usually direct managers because people will change (or not) based on the direction of their managers. Respecting the direct manager’s influential role in the change process is often an important part of a change approach.

5: See the change through their eyes

Develop relationships by seeking and responding to feedback. To encourage engagement, gather feedback then share back what was learned and what you’ll do in response. Notice how messages are interpreted. For those interpretations and reactions that are surprising, this is a time to get curious about what’s behind the reaction. Pay attention to what people say both directly and indirectly about their concerns. It’s useful to read between the lines to see if there are any Psychological Safety risks present. The idea is not to get fixated on what you discover, but, instead, analyze the risk and then decide what to do, if anything. You build trust over time when you demonstrate your intention to understand change from the point of view of those impacted by it. This is empathy in practice.

How You Think About it Matters

You can find a multitude of Change Management deliverables and models to manage a change. These five keys to success describe how to think about it which can help you use the templates and techniques in a way that suits your change.

That 2006 Data Governance conference didn’t convince me to make a data career switch (if that truly was my boss’ intention), but it did clarify how change experience could get companies the Data Strategy cultures they want. The data world has been a “change learning laboratory” for me ever since.