How To Use Dashboards To Guide Your Startup's 2021 Planning

You know the drill: Sometime in mid-December, a tsunami of planning will crash into your company as teams frantically scramble to figure out their initiatives and KPIs for next year. And as they scramble, every single one of them will be coming your way with a flood of requests.

Is there anything you can do to stop the deluge?

Yes—and it’s not that hard to manage. With a little effort today, you can make the end of this year and the beginning of next year less painful for yourself and better for the people you serve.

In this article, I’ll show you how you can use dashboard prep as a tool for helping your startup kick into high gear in 2021 and for starting your own work off on the right foot.

Why dashboard design can be a great method for planning

Normally we think of dashboards as a means of tracking an existing course of action. But you can also use the dashboard design process to help your teammates flesh out new plans

When teams are trying to develop their plans for the next year, it’s not uncommon to be clear on the central vision but pretty vague about how to execute on it or how they’ll stay on top of the project.

Suppose you launch an exciting new project in January. Imagine it’s April, and you and your manager are meeting to discuss whether the project is on track. What information would you want on a dashboard to help guide that conversation?

That in a nutshell is why designing a dashboard in advance can be so helpful in developing a plan. In particular:

  • It's a good way of discovering where a plan is clear and specific enough to get the job done and where it contains unanswered questions
  • Because a dashboard contains only so much real estate, it can be a great way to help you identify which metrics are most important to track.

Prioritize your dashboard design work

Just because someone wants a dashboard doesn’t mean that’s where you should spend your time Here are a few ways to figure out what your dashboard priorities should be:

First and foremost, talk with your boss about who to approach first and get their thoughts on how to prioritize requests. 

You should also get the lay of the land about what’s going on across the company. It's also important to pay attention at all-hands meetings—you can pick up a lot if you listen closely and read between the lines. And don’t forget about your network of allies. Keeping you one step ahead of planning is where all that relationship building can pay off handsomely. 

Finally, if your company recently closed more funding, know that more funding often means more metrics. As your startup scales, it’ll have board members to report to and new issues to deal with. That means you’ll need deeper data to keep the company’s head above water.

Interview teams

Managers and other staff won’t know today everything they plan to do in 2021. But there’s plenty you can elicit from teams if you know the right questions to ask and issues to raise. Here are a few to consider:

  • What do you already know you want to accomplish next year?
  • What are you most worried about for next year? What are potential pain points that you want to address?
  • Are there any existing reports that need to be tweaked? What’s been working that you want to do more of? Where you want to do better or go deeper? 
  • What's new that will require scaffolding? For example, if you’re going to ramp up PR, having referral metrics nailed down in advance will give you the best chance of tracking what can otherwise turn into a complicated mess.
  • Finally, in 2020 many of us scrambled to figure out how to work fully remotely. Ask teams how you can help make remote work easier next year. For example, if they have a weekly team meeting, is there routine information they wish they could easily share?

Focus on saving your colleagues time and effort

Dashboards can also be a great way to save your team obnoxious manual work that's required for status reports

For example, you can ask if there are any weekly or monthly reports where the team spends a bunch of time copying and pasting info into a meeting document or spreadsheet. Or perhaps Marketing has status reports where they regularly have to split out Hubspot data to separate "real leads" versus new contacts. Instead of doing that manually, it's easy enough to set up a dashboard—or a view plus a dashboard—to take care of the work for them.

You might think you wouldn't have to ask people about automating their manual work. After all, if it's such a pain, why aren't they already asking you to do something about it? But that's because you're an analyst and you understand what good tech can do for your workflow. Plus your coworkers may have gotten so used to having to grind it out that it doesn't occur to them you could save them the hassle.

Work together to enable self-service

Assuming your startup has a working analytics stack, if a particular department isn't self-serve right now, see if they have an interest in becoming more self-serve next year. If they do, find out what their greatest pain points are and focus your first iteration of dashboard-driven intervention around alleviating those aches.

But before you get too far down the road, get a commitment that staff will be available for training. Most people need at least some training in order to become self-sufficient, so get an agreement from them (and their boss!) upfront to ensure that the work you put into creating their dashboards will pay off.

Next steps 

After you’ve talked with enough people to get a rough idea of what they need—and done another round of prioritization—you can get started on the actual work. The trick is knocking out work now that will save you time later:

Start mocking up dashboards

When it comes to dashboards, one of the best ways to help folks figure out what they really need is to do a quick and dirty mockup with Google Sheets or Excel. Most people find that it’s much easier to clarify their needs when they have something visual to react to—especially in the case of a dashboard, where there’s only so much real estate to work with.

Why make a mockup in Google Sheets instead of using your favorite BI tool? 

  • To get a visual display in a BI tool that users can react to, you need to spend time making up fake data that the BI tool can turn into the elements of your dashboard. It's much quicker to mock up the end result with a spreadsheet
  • Many usability experts argue that you can actually get better feedback from users with “low fidelity” mockups. Because the end result isn’t polished, users are more likely to provide useful feedback because they know changing the design will be easy to do. A low fidelity mockup also sends a clear message that your work is far from finished, making it easier to set realistic expectations about when you’ll get them the final product.
  • Most staff are already comfortable working with spreadsheets. So with many teams, you may be able to quickly mock up the first version of the dashboard during your meeting with them.

Iterate on the dashboard

At this point in the process, most teams won't know what they need in a dashboard the first time they meet with you. So, you should plan to iterate the dashboard design.

Whether you either present your first version of the dashboard to the team or jointly develop it, make sure that you walk away with a clear set of follow-up tasks. For example, if the team nailed two metrics but is unsure about a third, what does the team need to figure out to complete their last metric?

Start creating views you know you’ll need

At this point, you won’t know exactly what teams will need for 2021. But you’ll have more than enough info to start creating partially or fully completed views for some teams.

For example, if you know Marketing is going to start using Hubspot data more intensively, you can make some pretty accurate educated guesses about the tables you’ll need to join and which data you may need to transform so it’s easier to work with. Even if you only know some of their plans, you can spend time now on work you know you’ll eventually need to do and be well ahead of the curve.

Conclusion

When there's a ton going on, it can be tough to set time aside for planning instead of continually executing. But investing a little time now prepping for dashboards, could seriously benefit your startup and your sanity, setting you on a path to a smoother 2021.

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