2015 INFORMS Annual Conference
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For analytics, the singer is more important than the song
Effective communications: How to achieve buy-in during the Twitter-influenced, short-attention-span era.
Analysts need to explain their idea, get buy-in for it, sell it and implement it.
By Gary Cokins
Most advocates of analytics do not have problems performing analysis. Their challenge is effectively communicating with their colleagues and getting them on board and getting buy-in.
Consider this example. An analyst comes up with an idea, perhaps to identify the most valuable type of customer to pursue for actions to lift profits. The analyst conducts a meeting, explains the problem to be solved or the opportunity to pursue, and describes a solution. The analyst concludes the meeting by defining and scheduling next steps.
Now imagine the analyst gets to secretly listen to conversations of the meeting attendees with others of their impressions of the analyst’s proposal. What might the analyst hear? Attendees might confess they did not really understand the problem, opportunity or solution. Some might react negatively, indicating that they do not like the solution. Some might not like the analyst and his or her message.
The Problem with Getting Ahead of Your Audience
The root problem is that the analyst assumes everyone understands the issues and that they are all on board and ready to take the next steps. Don’t be so hasty. A mistake made by idea generators, such as the analyst, is assuming that informing and educating their colleagues equates to having their support and commitment. The analyst has erroneously gotten ahead of his or her audience.
In his book “Beyond the Wall of Resistance”  author Rick Maurer uses a similar example as an introduction to his copyrighted “Cycle of Change” wheel diagram. The cycle includes these stages:
- In the dark – The people you want to influence are unaware of the problem and therefore the need for change. They do not see reasons to act on the issue.
- See the challenge – Maurer refers to this as the “aha” moment when someone acknowledges the problem, threat or opportunity. This is the most critical stage in the cycle. Once people see the challenge, it becomes possible to align them and advance in the cycle.
- Get started – These are the typical initial actions such as identifying objectives and making plans. The obstacle is people who are still in the dark or who do not see the challenge. They are not ready to get started.
- Roll out – Roll out is sometimes confused with a successful conclusion. It is just the beginning. The system may be in place and people trained, but the roll out means you are just starting the analysis or project implementation.
- Results – This is the stage where the benefits, partial or full, are realized. Examples of benefits may be increased revenues, cost reductions or reduced cycle time. Results are the test of both the idea and its solution including the implementation.
- Time to move on – Eventually the idea and its implementation are completed. Minor refinements can continue, but generally at this point the change has served its purpose, and there are new priorities to pursue.
The more critical obstacles are in the beginning stages. In addition to the previously stated mistake of assuming everyone is on board and prematurely advancing to the “get started” stage, Maurer cites other mistakes. One is underestimating the potential power of co-worker and management engagement. Employees who are disengaged can break the spirit of those who are. Another mistake is not recognizing how much resistance to change and fear may reside in co-workers.
An additional and critical mistake Maurer cites is a failure to acknowledge how lack of trust or confidence in the analyst or leadership can prevent pursuing a good idea. The adage from the movie “The Field of Dreams” was, “If you build it (the baseball field), then they will come.” That won’t work.
The ‘Why’ Before the ‘How’
The lesson here is to not move to action too quickly. Until understanding and education are firmly in place, others might tune out or even sabotage an idea. In the “see the challenge” stage of the cycle analysts, as change agents, should be empathetic. They need to place themselves in the shoes of their audience and consider what may emotionally affect the audience.
Do not underestimate the importance of making a strong case for the idea or change. Do not rush to the “how” unless everyone understands and agrees to the “why.”
At any stage in the cycle of change there is vulnerability to resistance that can emerge from any missteps. Resistance to change is human nature. People like the status quo. Maurer warns change agents to watch out for three increasing levels of concern:
- Logical concern: Confusion vs. understanding; your audience is thinking, “I don’t get it.”
- Emotional concern: Fear vs. a favorable reaction; your audience is thinking, “I don’t like it.”
- Personal concern: Mistrust vs. confidence; your audience is thinking, “I don’t like you.”
People are seldom neutral. They are either supportive or opposing.
Effective Communications: Short and Sweet
Getting your message out involves effective communication. Good communication matters when you want to convert opposing views, build that business case earlier mentioned or, at a minimum, have an audience to listen to you. This is essential during the “in the dark” and “see the challenge” stages of Maurer’s Cycle of Change.
Effective communication is complicated in the Twitter era by the growing deluge of social media and other distractions coupled with the shortening attention span of people. Good, old-fashioned memory retention – or lack thereof – further complicates the problem, as evidenced by the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. Hermaan Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who researched memory in the late 19th century. His tests revealed that immediate recall and memory of a message typically drops to 60 percent in 19 minutes, 45 percent in 63 minutes and 33 percent in a day.
So, what are effective ways to communicate? Most important is to keep your message brief and simple.
Consider this example. On Nov. 19, 1863, at the dedication of the Gettysburg’s Soldiers National Cemetery, the first speaker was a popular orator of the time, Edward Everett. His talk was lasted more than two hours and included roughly 13,700 words. President Abraham Lincoln was also invited to speak. His address last two minutes and included 271 words. One talk was memorable and the other forgettable.
Lincoln did not quickly compose his speech. He carefully crafted it. That reveals a difficult task. The shorter the time to communicate a message, the more thought that must go into crafting it.
In the book “Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die” , authors Chip and Dan Heath emphasize key points to make a message “stick” with readers or listeners. The following quote is from Publishers Weekly’s review of the book: “What makes stories memorable and ensures their spread around the globe? The authors credit six key principles: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories. (The initial letters spell out ‘success’ – well, almost.) They illustrate these principles with a host of stories, some familiar (Kennedy’s stirring call to ‘land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth’ within a decade) and others very funny (Nora Ephron’s anecdote of how her high school journalism teacher used a simple, embarrassing trick to teach her how not to ‘bury the lead’).”
I have made many presentations for my employers, admittedly to drum up business and sale leads. I may not always have been perfectly on message for what my employer was selling at the time, but I have been effective at holding people’s attention and earning the right to advance. Sometimes the singer is more important than the song.
Analysts are passionate about their ideas and techniques to gain insights and provide foresight for their colleagues to make better decisions. It is not sufficient to have a good idea. Analysts need to explain it, get buy-in for it, sell it and implement it. You may not have a great singing voice. Everyone is not a Frank Sinatra. But if your song is a decent one, singing it well and not getting ahead of your audience may be your secret to better success of your ideas and analysis.
Gary Cokins (email@example.com) is an internationally recognized expert, speaker and author in advanced cost management and enterprise performance and risk management systems. He is the founder of Analytics-Based Performance Management (www.garycokins.com), an advisory firm located in Cary, N.C. He began his career in industry with a Fortune 100 company in CFO and operations roles. He then worked 15 years in consulting with Deloitte, KPMG and EDS. In 1992 he joined SAS, a global leader in business intelligence and analytics software, as a principal consultant. His two most recent books are “Performance Management: Finding the Missing Pieces to Close the Intelligence Gap” and “Performance Management: Integrating Strategy Execution, Methodologies, Risk, and Analytics.” He is a member of INFORMS.
- Rick Maurer, “Beyond the Wall of Resistance” (revised edition), Bard Press, 2010.
- Chip and Dan Heath, “Made to Stick,” Random House, 2007.