No one wants you to tell them their baby is ugly. Even you.

It’s easy to be a critic of everyone else’s work, but what about your own? How can you be sure the efforts and resources you are investing for some expected outcome are actually going to deliver that outcome? And how many times do you invest months of time, effort, energy, and budget dollars only to come out on the other end completed dumbfounded it didn’t work out as intended?

In today’s business climate, you can’t afford to be wrong for very long. But the larger the organization, the deeper the business rules and implicit assumptions create behavior that produces very predictable results. How do you get the attention of people in a way that results in a change of thinking, process, and outcomes?

Data visualization affords leaders the opportunity to discover what they previously didn’t want to or couldn’t see. Traditional reporting tends to hide what you don’t want to see and highlight what you do. We all do it.

Behind every report is a series of assumptions about the success that drive the structure and presentation of the information. Anyone can take success and make it look like an utter failure by simply change the assumptions behind it. (And don’t think more than few great projects have been torpedoed that way.)

But data visualization has a way of cutting through the baked in assumptions any organization carries with it and reveals what is truly there.

Here’s why I think that is true:

  • Data visualization requires you to start with raw data. You need to go back to the lowest common denominator. If you can start with a data deposit of all records, transactions, etc. without any filters, then you can be sure you’re not already predisposed to unnecessarily editing out or removing data that might lead you to a different conclusion.
  • Data visualization forces you to answer one question for every visualization. Traditional reporting often gets the viewer lost in all the complex details. Each time you create a new worksheet, you must start with a new question. And beginning with the question prevents you from starting with an answer and working backward.
  • Data visualization makes it easy to bring together multiple data points to inform a better conclusion. There are many ways to enter a single house—however big or small. But you are still entering the same building. This is also true as you combine multiple data points. This prevents you from unnecessary bias the creeps into any form of analysis.

So, how does data visualization let you say hard things?

When you combine the raw data with a series of worksheets that look at the relationship between multiple data points, you begin to tell a story. And yes, there is a story behind every number. That story will either point to leading or lagging indicated based on the data you put into it. And the result will be unmistakable. It will either confirm your decisions are leading to the outcomes you had hoped for or they won’t.

But here’s the good news: It’s OK if your baby is ugly. It doesn't have to stay ugly. You actually have the power to create whatever change is necessary.

The most amazing thing about projects and organizations versus humans is that you can impact the contributing and mitigating factors and create an entirely new outcome or result. It all starts with your ability to slip past the thinking that is holding you back and reach for the insights that will inform your decision making moving forward.

Data visualization will say it for you

If you incorporate the discipline of data visualization into your leadership, you’ll never actually have to tell anyone their baby is ugly. The data will do that for you. You simply walk people through your work project—in Tableau, it’s called a Story or Dashboard—and you’ll find they will arrive at a similar conclusion.

The only caveat I would say is that you need be certain your data is unbiased and comprehensive. Repeat after me: The data architect is my friend. You need them to help you with this step unless you are a coding ninja with direct access to the data warehouse. In that case, you’re my friend.

Since most people aren’t expecting you to approach the tough conversations in this way, you’ll remove the initial gut reaction to argue or discredit the conclusion. You will slip past the inherent bias in the room and help people view something familiar in a new way. It’s rather empowering if you’ve never experienced it before. In consulting, the whole experience is called from the other side of the table to the same side of the table. It’s when people stop viewing you as a threat and start seeing you as a partner.

The last part of this process I would encourage is for you to be open to modifying your conclusions or the size, shape, or construct of your data visualizations as new information becomes available. Data is fluid, and so should your approach to all aspects of your business. After all, what’s the purpose of data visualization as a listening platform if you’re not going to listen anyway?

Data visualization may not help you win friends, but it will certainly help you influence people, organizations, and outcomes—even when the data says your baby is ugly.

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