Why And How To Assemble Data-Loving Allies

Trying to transform your business into a data-driven powerhouse can feel overwhelming. Even if you've got amazing self-service tools, helping your team become comfortable and skilled at using them is no joke.

That's why smart data analysts don't go it alone—they recruit allies throughout their company.

Even if you're highly skilled at working with data, you may not have any experience or training in assembling a group of allies. So in this article, I'll show you how to identify potential allies and transform them into an army of mini-data evangelists who can help your company use data to fuel its success.

What is an ally and how do you discover them?

Are there any folks at your company who are excited about the prospect of your company becoming more data-driven and are willing to either do some work and/or use some of their influence to help make it happen? Those people could be allies—and recruiting them to help you move the mission forward could greatly increase the odds of your success.

Here are some of the types of people you might want to see if you can recruit as an ally:

  • Staff who are excited about working with data
  • Staff whose work depends on data (or data-informed optimization)
  • Staff who are frustrated by having to work in spreadsheets
  • Staff who are regularly looking for ways to up their data game and/or become more independent
  • Staff who others in their department turn to for help and are eager to learn more
  • Managers who are evangelists for democratizing access to data—and who understand that data isn’t a panacea 

When recruiting allies, you may not end up with an ally in every unit, but you should aim to try to recruit at least one ally in most units. When you get started, make a list of every unit and map out where you've already got allies and where you think you've got a good chance to pick up new allies.

During the recruitment phase, use your data work to develop new allies. Find the right lion who has a thorn in their paw, and a little smart work can win you valuable long-term support.

Along with seeking out people who are good at data, look for staff who are what are known as "organic leaders": people who are respected and trusted in their department and/or throughout the company. If you can win over an organic leader, they are likely to bring along a lot more data converts.

Finally, odds are at least one or two of your allies will be curmudgeons. Great! Converting someone from a moderately cranky critic to an ally can be incredibly useful to you in a good sign to other people that you—and your data—should be trusted. But it also doesn't hurt to have some allies who are nice and are fun to work with.

Developing your allies' skills

Once you've identified your potential allies, the first thing you'll want to do is to help them level up. But just as important, you’ll need to help them take a leadership role when it comes to data, even if that leadership only extends as far as their own team.

Help them up their data/analytics skillset 

Some of your newfound allies may already be data rockstars. But others may just be data-curious. If they're going to be helpful in spreading the data-driven gospel, they've got to have enough skill so they can 1) assist folks in their unit become more skilled working with data and 2) build the respect and trust needed to help steer how their unit uses—and doesn't use—data

As you train up your allies, here are a few things you want to keep in mind:

  • You want to ensure they are at least able to operate at a baseline, so you can be confident you can count on them. You'll want to turn some allies into data rockstars. But not everyone has the capacity or the interest to do that—and they don't have to in order to transform your company.
  • They may need skills beyond the baseline to address their unit's unique needs and wants. For example, if a unit is gaga over graphics, your ally will need to be adept at both cranking out data viz and at understanding the UX of different types of charts
  • If they are upper-level managers, whether you train them to get good at working with data directly depends in large part on their circumstances. Many Higher Ups may not have the time or interest to learn the ins and outs of tweaking a chart, leaving that work up to their staff. But they still may need training on how to get more out of charts, what makes for a good or bad chart, etc.  Alternatively, if their contribution is acting as a project champion and clearing the path, they may not need any training.

Leadership development

As important as your allies' data skills are, their social skills are equally important. If they are going to help their unit become more data-driven, allies need to be able to win over skeptical staff, help someone who's nervous about using data overcome their fears, and figure out how to sell their boss on becoming more data-driven.

Some of your allies will already be skilled at this. For the others, plan on spending at least a little time mentor them in the less geeky aspects of data success.

How to turn your allies into a network

As useful as individual allies are, the real power from developing allies comes from networking them together:

  • It increases the likelihood that you will have the political support you need
  • It can make it considerably easier to negotiate compromises across teams about your work's trade-offs and priorities
  • It can make life easier for allies who feel isolated in a department that's resistant to becoming more data-driven
  • It can make your job more enjoyable—especially if you’re starting off as the sole data analyst

Creating connections between your allies is important, but it may not be entirely easy. Here are some tips for turning individual allies into a powerful network:

1) Build your network systematically 

If you start with a strong group, other folks are going to want to join your network. And you'll also set the right tone, which will make it easier to then bring in parts of the company that pose more challenges.

So, for example, when choosing the first cohort of allies you're going to try to recruit, go for folks who are easy to work with and are likely to have clear wins from using the data warehouse. And if some of these folks are the trusted staff of Higher Ups whose political support you need for buy-in on major projects, so much the better.

Some departments may be very resistant to becoming more data-driven. Don't worry too much if you can't develop allies in skeptical departments from the jump. Rack up wins in other units and win over some allies who are respected by the holdouts, and you'll have a much easier time winning over these folks down the line.

2) Design shared spaces and ongoing mini-trainings to build your network

As you've thought about how you're going to support staff, you've undoubtedly at least considered:

  • Creating a Slack channel/group for shared problems
  • Carving out space on your company wiki or intranet
  • Creating simple ongoing training tools, such as cheat sheets, Loom videos, etc.
  • Hosting virtual brown bags

As you consider these options, ask yourself, is there a way to shape the support tools you develop so they help build a sense of a community?

It doesn't have to be anything fancy. For example, if one of your allies posts an example of work they've done on your shared space, you could show them some love on the Slack channel and remind folks of a similar example another ally had posted last month. Just a little thought along the way could help bring some cohesiveness and community to what could otherwise feel like a set of disparate tools and actions.

But there’s another benefit here: By creating shared spaces, you also create the opportunity for allies to share knowledge, which means some of the support and training that would normally fall on your plate will be handled by that network of peers.

3) Nudge people to pair up 

Not everything you do to build your network has to involve the whole group. Sometimes, having allies work in pairs or small teams can be very useful. Not only can they learn from each other, but it's also a way of strengthening bonds within your network.

There are a variety of ways of doing this. For example:

  • If one ally is an Excel or BI tool rockstar and another is just getting started, you could suggest that they pair up—almost the way some programmers do pair programming—and work on a task together.
  • You could take a useful but not time sensitive cross-team project you've been meaning to work on and bring together two or more allies to work on it—perhaps with a little mentoring from you.

4) Create a sounding board 

One of the most useful ways to both build and employ your network of allies is to treat them as a sounding board. For example:

  • You might meet every quarter or every six months with some of your allies to talk about your proposed plans and ask them to help you shape it.
  • You could bring allies together on an ad hoc basis whenever you've got a tough decision to make that's going to have a major impact on the direction of your analytics platform

Not only is a sounding board a great way to test out ideas and get a broader perspective, but it's also a way of building a sense of ownership among your allies. And when allies feel more invested in your work, they're more likely to help advocate for moving the organization in the direction you're hoping to go.

5) Share your new toys with your new friends

If you’re trying out a new data toy—e.g., a new data viz tool—use that as an opportunity to strengthen your bonds with your allies.

If you invite others to play with your new toys, you can gain a couple of advantages:

  • You can learn from their unique experience
  • You give your allies a small break from the daily grind where they can play with something that's cool
  • It can make it easier to lobby for the resources to have your company adopt the new tool
  • It strengthens your allies' ownership of your company's data journey

And, of course, by having others test out tools you’re considering, you’ll find out early if they’re not going to work out for reasons other than budget. After all, while you might love a particular pile of LEGO, the rest of your company could view it as a hot mess rather than an opportunity for freeform play.

6) Hold a data tool “bake-off”

One particularly fun and effective way to invite allies to play with your toys is to hold a data tool bake-off.

Suppose the data viz tool your company uses just isn't cutting it anymore, and you want to explore alternatives. Rather than doing it solo, turn it into a contest.

Have several of your most skilled/reliable allies each choose a data viz tool and use the same data set to produce several charts. Then have everyone score how each tool stacked up against the others.

Or if you're thinking about exploring a bit of data science but aren't sure if you should go with R or Python and Notebooks, you might create two teams with a range of skillsets to try them out on the same set of tasks over a couple of weeks. You'll get better results, and the allies who've teamed up will get a chance to bond with each other.

If folks are up for it, you might even get a little silly. Why not treat it like it's an Olympic event or a TV show contest? Along with giving your allies a chance to show off (aka, create jealousy among the not-yet-converted), it promotes awareness of your data work to a broader audience.

7) Brand what you’re doing

One last way to develop your network: build a brand around it.

For example, at one point I worked at an organization where one of my staff was creating a network of staff who were being trained to become data visualization experts and evangelists.  He decided to brand them as Data Visualization Ambassadors, a.k.a. the DiVAs. We didn't have money to get DiVA coffee mugs or other tchotchkes, but he convinced one of our company's designers to create a certificate designed to look like a personalized license plate, which we gave out to every member of a cohort who went through our hands-on data visualization best practices trainings. It was a bit goofy, but many allies loved it and prominently displayed their certificate in their cubicle.

Branding your fledgling network isn’t going to pack the same punch that successful branding can have with a startup’s customers. But by pulling together the elements of your networking efforts and giving them an identity, it’ll be a little easier to create cohesion among your allies. And—in conjunction with other efforts like bake-offs, etc.—branding might make data work feel a little more playful and help data evangelism stand out from all the other work on your allies’ plates.

8) Know that it’s a long game

Sometimes getting your network up and running happens pretty quickly.  But it’s ok if it takes a while.  

Changing the way a business thinks about and prioritizes the use of data is rarely an easy task—that’s the reason you need to create a network of allies.  So if you’re having trouble gaining traction when you first get started, don’t sweat it. Just keep looking for opportunities to recruit and connect allies. 

The other thing to know is that once you start to get that traction, things may start moving quickly. You could see more data requests, more desire for training, and more interest in becoming part of the network you’ve created. There could be too much for you to reasonably handle alone—and that’s a good thing!

Take advantage of your network to help manage that deluge of interest, whether that means having them lead brown bags or coaching teammates through a data project. If your allies are solid, your impact will be multiplied but your workload won’t be.

Conclusion

Given all the data crunching work that you do, the idea of spending time to identify and develop allies may seem a little counterintuitive. But with a modest amount of work, you'll be able to greatly expand your ability to lead your company towards data-driven goodness and higher profits.

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