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Being data-driven is all the rage. Some would consider it a fad or trend that will pass soon enough. The only problem with that is data is a natural byproduct of how you and I engage with the world. Whether it's as a consumer or business leader, data informs our decisions and captures what we—as well as our constituents—want, desire, or need.

Dashboards and data aren't futuristic aspirations anymore. They are now and have already become part of the normal mode of operations for many in society.

Consider these marketplace examples:

  •  Consider TrueCar. It offers car shoppers the chance to understand the sales volume, demand, and pricing of the vehicle and options of interest in a specific geographic area. Having this information at your fingertips was impossible just a few years ago. Today, it's an app on your smartphone that equips you to make the best decision about your next vehicle purchase. How is this possible? Data.
  •  Consider Trivago. It consolidates the price of hotels wherever you are staying to give you an advantage of not just picking the hotel with the right location but also the right price. Remembering what it was like to go to AAA with my parents and get this information in a book that was already outdated by the time it was printed, reminds me just how far we've come. How is this possible? Data.
  •  Consider the Apple Watch. While tracking workout metrics isn't new, the contextual information and built-in coaching help consumers stay on track and meet their goals. Since the dashboard is self-defined, it is relevant, timely, and specific. And it's also in a format that is actionable. How is this possible? Data.

Think about it. We spent the first 18 years of our lives receiving report cards and progress reports. So it's not too much of a stretch to embrace the reality that data visualization is not just for scientists and analysts; it's available to anyone and benefits everyone.

Real-time, responsible, and contextual dashboards are essential.

It's rarely knowledge or access that keeps people from taking action. It's the drive that comes from within to do something you've never done that pushes you to adapt to changing realities to ensure you meet your goals.

This is why it blows my mind that data visualization is so accessible to the consumer yet such an elusive discipline for so many business leaders. The world is changing so fast no one has the benefit of operating with the assumption that the next 10 years are simply building on and perfecting the last 10 years. You can't even guarantee the next 10 weeks are going function within the same assumptions and realities.

  •  Financial markets change.
  • Consumer demands change.
  • Business models change.

How can you manage all of this with confidence and clarity? Data. And what is the best way to digest all of this data? Data Visualization.

So, why don't more organizations and leaders embrace this change then? There are many reasons. But I believe there are three obstacles things standing in the way of you and your organization embracing data-visualization as a core tool in your professional toolbox.

You must first have data.

I know that sounds overly simplistic, but you can't measure what you don't collect. The first key is to define the problem you are trying to solve for. Then you find ways to collect as much data as you can around that problem.

For business leaders, tools like CRMs, marketing automation, and online and social activity are rich sources of data. So are financial systems, and general business communication such as email, phone, and mail. These repositories are going to be different based on the business you are in.

Once you have data, then you must have access to tools to help you make sense of it.

This is where data visualization comes in. The biggest mistake I see organizations make is they treat data visualization as a specialty report writer rather than a valuable, self-directed tool by the business leader. As data is democratized, data visualization becomes even more important. It's the only possible way to process through all the necessary data to make the best decision possible.

Many organizations respond to this need by employing a small group of creators to design visual dashboards and stories for business leaders rather than enabling all business line leaders to learn how to use data visualization to improve performance and drive toward outcomes. This is just re-institutionalizing capacity constraints and limiting the scope to largely descriptive data.

The fundamental problems with this approach are business leaders don't own the data and descriptive data is always driven by what's already happened. It's, by definition, always looking backward. And as a mentor once told me, "You can't lead forward by looking through the rearview mirror."

Data visualization should be iterative and directional. That will ensure the business leader can adjust and adapt throughout any given campaign, financial period, or strategic effort. It offers the chance to look back with real-time feedback and look ahead with predictive modeling at the same time. Thus, you are empowered to make critical business decisions well before they become a trend. (e.g. Think chasing leading indicators vs lagging indicators.)

Last, the business leader must gain the skills necessary to use the data and tools available to make the best decision.

This may prove to be the most complex as it requires a retraining of the mind and a reassessing of the decision making process. And some just will never cross that great divide.

Most leaders don't really make data-driven decisions. Instead, they find data to support the decisions they've already made. While this may help you in a boardroom conversation, it will cripple you during times of change and uncertainty. (e.g. You can't have isolated success stories and not reconcile with flat to declining revenue.)

It's going to take a whole new skill set and a shift in expectations to change the expectations of business leaders around data visualization. A world where data is at the center understands that, very often, our gut or intuition is limited by our experience and understanding. And past success is often a terrible indicator of future success.

Data visualization ensures leaders understand data in context and can act on those insights.

There is a good chance you are right in the middle of this transition in your business and your professional life. It doesn't matter if you work for a church, business, nonprofit, or cause, data visualization is a vehicle that will help you arrive at your intended destination.

The good news is you don't have to be a quantitative analyst or a coder to be able to utilize this technology. It may take a little commitment on your part during your nights and weekends to get up to speed, but leaders who embrace this skill set will be well positioned for the present and the future.

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