On my Team: the Analyst


Data analysts can sometimes be left off the team until we want them to prove our case or “make the numbers work.” This is a traditional and normal way to deal with analytics related to strategic work. Another way to deal with them is to let the Finance department drive strategy, putting all of our eggs into the numbers basket. Neither approach is optimal, or even aligned with the realities of business in the real world.

I have been talking a lot about analytics over the past few months, as my most recent employment was in a contract role as a Benefits Analyst and I have had a few interviews lately for roles that are data intensive.

Along the way I have found that a few principles about analytics have been forefront in my mind:

  • Data can be manipulated to say anything you want it to.
  • When data says what you want it to, it might not actually be saying anything meaningful. Or helpful. It can be counterproductive by reaffirming existing prejudices.
  • Approaching data analysis with a question to answer as opposed to a thesis to prove may result in unexpected insights.
  • Unexpected, even undesirable, answers to our questions bring us closer to a real solution than simply proving a case.

When strategic planning initiatives partner operations and analysis, the end result is more powerful and more relevant than either of the disciplines working independently. It is far more efficient for a team to face objective realities of both practice and data along the way than it is to construct a plan that is doomed to fail by way of negligence.


On my Team: the Fresh Meat

steak-1081819_1920By “Fresh Meat,” I am referring not to someone who is young or early career, though he could be. What I am talking about here is the person who is new to the organization, even as little as 6 months tenure.

When we think about forming strategic planning teams, we don’t normally think to ourselves, “You know who would be perfect for this project? The brand new specialist on the division Sales team!” We are more likely to say, “We really need folks who know this organization inside and out.” And we’d be right.  But that naivete about this specific organization is exactly why Fresh Meat needs to be on our strategy team.

The “newbie” is the one that comes in with current and relevant experience with what other organizations are doing. Your new employee has all the comparisons to their previous company fresh in mind: what worked at Starbucks, what didn’t work at Twitter, how adidas approached this problem, while Nike did it this other way.

Don’t get me wrong. The team doesn’t need the ultimate surf and turf of newbies. Hopefully, your strategy team members already hail from a variety of other organizations and industries. What this person brings is not necessarily organizational diversity so much as recency.  I was on a team a few years back that had members hailing from some big players in the Northwest. It was a diverse team with representation from Nike, TMobile, Starbucks and others. What the Fresh Meat brought us was current experience, untainted by internal expectations about what was possible.

The “Yes Man”: every team needs one

thumb-up-441938The person who always gives an unqualified yes can be irritating and easy to hate for their peers, dangerous for their leaders and aggravating for their subordinates. If you couldn’t tell from that summary, they’re not my favorite archetype. This may be because my tendency to say exactly what I think, regardless of the consequences, makes myself and the Yes Person like oil and water.

I have faced an executive leader and laughed so hard at his idea that I nearly fell out of my chair. In retrospect, that was probably not the wisest move, but he found it “refreshing,” so I was forgiven. In contrast, the stereotypical Yes Person in the same situation would nod, agree and find a way to make it happen, even if the idea was laughably inappropriate for the organization.

Over time, I have learned that while I do not want a team full of this type, the Yes Person serves an important role in any organization. They have the ability to say “Yes.” It may not be the best strategic decision in the history of humanity, but gosh darn it, we’re going to make it happen. And that will to make it happen, the unwavering belief that impossible is unacceptable, makes the Yes Person a vital part of a well-balanced team.

Who’s on my team?

When preparing to do strategic visioning work, assembling the right team for the job is vital. If groupthink is the arrow that killed creative problem solving, then a homogenous team is the achilles heel of your project.

In my ideal strategy team, you would find a variety of archetypes.  Here are some of the types of people I consider vital:

  • the Executive Sponsor as the team’s champion and air coverage
  • the Academic providing deep knowledge of relevant practice and theory
  • the “Yes Man” who is certain we can make it happen, regardless of constraints
  • the Naysayer reminding us all of the elephant in the room, throwing a wrench in the machine, and all the many ways why this won’t work
  • the Dreamer with head in the clouds and giving us lofty, beautiful, utterly impractical ideas.
  • the Realist pointing out that words are pretty, but here on planet earth, there’s this thing called gravity.
  • the Innovator standing so close to the edge that it bleeds
  • the Traditionalist steadfastly insisting that this is how it is done, how it has always been done
  • the Analyst demanding to see the numbers
  • the Old Guard with the institutional history to keep everything in context and navigate the political landscape
  • the Fresh Meat, someone newer to the organization, unbiased by internal history and politics
  • the High Potential for whom this is a stretch assignment
  • the Facilitation Team with one partner to facilitate and one to observe

Each of these types has their strengths and weaknesses, but when you bring them together, with mutually agreed upon expectations about behaviour, amazing things happen.

What types of people do you look for when building a strategic team?