Executing on Becoming Data Driven - Commoncog

Note: this is Part 7 in a series of blog posts about becoming data driven in business. You may want to read the prior parts before reading this essay.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://commoncog.com/executing-on-becoming-data-driven

An important part about how Alan Mulally also executed on the metrics was by making the focus on everyone being on the same team and “working together” which is also the title of his book. When I’ve seen these versions of these metrics reviews rolled out without that important element it can feel like being called into the principal’s office when it is your turn, or a bit like a blame game so I think it’s really worth calling that out as the part about suceeding in running these reviews.


Also a hilarious fact I had forgotten but just remembered when looking up the interview I was thinking of is that Mulally also used to run the reviews for his family! He has 5 kids and they’d do it weekly. He was a guest on the Knowledge Project podcast last year.


Ooh yes! I’m not sure if I communicated it properly, but a big part of what Mullaly was trying to do was to get everyone to play on the same team (instead of playing stupid political games to look good in front of each other, or to lie with metrics to each other). There’s a fairly good segment in the book that I didn’t include where they’d been doing the BPR for awhile now, but every executive was still showing charts that were ‘green and up and to the right’, until Mark Fields took the bold step of showing the first red chart. At which point Mullaly clapped, thanked Fields for his courage, and then asked the other execs if they could help with the issue. This sent a signal to Ford’s entire leadership team that they would not be punished (or heckled by their peers) if they told the truth.

After which, the executives were all more willing to surface problems in the weekly BPR.

This story is a little difficult to tell in this post because by this time Mullaly had been doing the BPR for awhile; certain execs were on their way out or had been sidelined, and Mullaly was doing a number of other things in the background that contributed to the BPR working the way it did — including sending (terrible) financial metrics to everyone in the company, which inevitably leaked to the automotive press. Plus Mullaly himself seemed like an extremely charismatic, cheerful leader, who genuinely believed in saving Ford (hence ‘American Icon’, the name of the book — Mullaly thought Ford represented something important to America, or so Hoffman writes).

The big problem with such narratives, of course, is that it’s cleaned up and shortened. I’ll try and include a longer, more complete case in the Commoncog Case Library. (Though even then I’m sure the reality of Mullaly’s turnaround is messier than what the book makes it out to be).


Oh, yeah, I should add: I’m actively looking out for cases/narratives of organisations or companies successfully becoming more data-driven. If you have books or podcasts or other case studies, please send them my way!

I currently have two recommendations for schools, which is interesting because it’s so different from typical business cases that I’ve been looking at:

  1. Win-Win, and
  2. Driven by Data

But I’m not currently sure if either of these books have concrete case studies, with lots of implementation details … but I’m hoping to find out.

I’ve been itching to respond to this post - let’s hope my enthusiasm results in something useful and not just a bunch of strident drivel. :slight_smile:

The dynamic described in “two parts to every analytics project” is present in nearly every project, or equivalently, nearly every project is at its core an analytics project. Even something like weight loss can be considered an analytics project. First you figure out what needs to be done to lose weight and to manage your progress (including buying diet books, exercise equipment, special food/supplements, etc.), then it’s actually executing on the approach.

A main part of my job is to advise clients that are pursuing large technical projects on how to be successful. The two-part dynamic always comes up, and what I tell people is “tools are hard, but they are the easy part.” There are a lot of reasons that this dynamic exists in so many areas:

Internal org factors:

  • People tend to want to continue to do what has rewarded them in the past
  • Doing new things involves making mistakes, which does not feel good compared to doing things the old way without making mistakes
  • If metrics and incentives have not changed, people who embrace the change can easily be punished compared to those who continue to excel at what is being measured and rewarded
  • Peers don’t tend to update their patterns of what they reward and punish, so new behaviors often get punished by lower reputation, ridicule, or even shunning

External org factors:

  • It’s much easier to sell a tool or a book or plan for a fixed project to implement technology than it is to achieve changed results
  • It’s much easier to train an inexpensive resource to execute a rote approach to installing a tool or implementing a fixed method than to get someone with sufficient experience to help navigate implementing a change so it achieves the desired customer results
  • External orgs can’t control many of the factors that make or break their customer’s success, so if they base their success criteria on whether the customer is successful on their terms, they will be perceived as failing more often and suffer the consequences of that perception.

These are all the reasons for the data leader’s observation about what is required for change. It’s back to carrots and sticks - either there is enough incentive for people to push through the above drawbacks to achieve the change (which there almost never is at scale), or the consequences of not doing so must be severe enough to overcome these factors. Those consequences can only come from a senior leader if the goal is change across the entire organization.

This is why one of the keys to becoming more data driven (or making any successful change, for that matter) is to select a scope small enough to where there is either enough desire to make change, or enough ability to impose consequences. Value-focused, incremental change, with a short enough duration to not get derailed by unexpected disruptions and to allow for learning about what really propels us towards our goals, and what does not.

Once we find something that works, then we can advertise that success and use that to build momentum for bigger efforts. Success changes the dynamics of all the internal factors above. If team A is now outperforming team B because of a change, team B is going to start to fear falling behind and become motivated to start changing themselves. Team A members now have a higher reputation, which causes them to be sought out by others. Success and commitment creates a higher tolerance for mistakes, which improves the learning cycle.

To sum up, I’ll be surprised if you find any counterexamples of large-scale change through other dynamics, but I’d be very keen to be proven wrong as we would all benefit from having more ways to be successful than what I have found so far.

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I have a huge amount of respect for folk who can successfully pull off large org scale changes, and who aren’t the most senior leader in the org. I think what made the aforementioned data leader’s quote so compelling in my head is that I can’t (at least for now!) think of an exception.

That said, from reading your comment carefully, you do seem to imply that even if you did achieve this ‘start small, find something that works, advertise success and build momentum for bigger efforts’, you will still eventually need a senior leader to push for the change if the goal is change across the entire org. I’m referring to this particular section of your comment:

I have to wonder — are there successful cases of bottoms up or mid-level cultural / org change? And I’m talking specifically about organisations here, not societies or loose collections of individuals (which I think are more amenable to such change, because the power structures aren’t so clear, as they are in most companies). I’m still at the beginning of collecting cases for this, so I’d welcome any and all stories.

Yes, that is what I believe, but let me tell you why I don’t believe it is as big of an obstacle to creating change as it might seem. Once a certain level of momentum is built up, my experience has been that people very quickly want to get involved. Everyone loves a winner, after all. It’s along the same lines of “never waste a crisis” - smart leaders take advantage of opportunities to benefit from changes that have momentum to include/add items that can ride along with the change.

Thus, if I want to create change in an organization, there are at least two paths to victory:

  1. Identify something that senior leaders want, and create a solution that delivers on that (while also delivering on what I want as a consequence)
  2. Make small-scale changes and build up momentum until it gets on the radar of someone who is willing to then sponsor the change to get something they want

BTW, ChatGPT suggested the Boy Scouts of America and its stance on gay members as one possible example of lower-level change, but I’m not sure if that fits what you are looking for.