The behavioral discovery of analytics
Thornton May on using analytics to do current things better – and discover better things to do
For the past 18 months, I have been traveling around the world lecturing leaders on the importance of analytics. I have been joined in this endeavor by some of the top minds in our industry – most notably professor Tom Davenport and venture capitalist Geoffrey Moore. Not one – NOT ONE of the literally thousands of senior executives I have spoken to has ever said, “Nah, we know enough. We don’t need no stinking analytics.” 1 Everyone – EVERYONE understands that we can know more; that we must know more. And yet many organizations still struggle with taking sure and rapid steps on the path to mastering analytics. Why is this?
School children of my generation were instructed that Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. Historical research indicates that the first map that depicted “America” as a separate continent was drafted by Martin Waldseemüller in 1507.2 Until the day that he died, Columbus continued to insist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the lands he had “discovered” were part of Asia. Throughout history there has been a lag between seeing a thing, naming a thing and understanding a thing.
It actually took most Europeans almost 300 years from Columbus’ first encounter with the New World to realize that it was indeed fully detached from the Old World. Thus, 1492 marks the beginning of a long voyage that was in fact completed only in the late 18th century.3
How long will it take the majority of executives to understand analytics? I hope our colleagues throughout the enterprise will not require 300 years to “behaviorally” discover analytics. By behaviorally discover, I mean analytics should materially change how they behave and make decisions.
My conversations with people at the top of some of the most important and impressive organizations in the world indicate that awareness of the benefits of analytics is not enough. The question facing our industry is not “Do leaders understand analytics?” but rather “Do analysts understand leadership?” If analytics is to truly become part of the behavioral DNA of the modern enterprise, analysts are going to have to crawl inside the heads of modern leaders and see what makes them tick.
If we are to realize the full value of the amazing analytic tools available to us today, the analytic community – particularly the readers of this online magazine – are going to have to understand leaders and leadership.4
This is not a trivial exercise. “More has been written and less known about leadership than about any other topic in the behavioral sciences,” say Bernard M. Bass and Ralph M. Stogdill in their Handbook of Leadership. Warren Bennis, one of the most respected leadership scholars working today, once summarized the state of knowledge regarding leadership, stating, “the endless accumulation of empirical data has not produced an integrated understanding of leadership.”
We do know a few things about leaders and leadership. Leadership scholars will tell you that leadership and management are two very different things. In 1990, John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, wrote an article, “What Leaders Really Do.” In that article he posited that leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Managers promote stability while leaders press for change. Kotter concluded that, “Most US corporations today (1990) are over-managed and under-led.”
Analytics – A management and leadership tool
Leadership and management are each critically important systems of action. The contemporary zeitgeist is down on management and up on leadership. This is the wrong way to think about these two disciplines. Would you rather work in a well-managed but poorly led enterprise (a business that is going the wrong way but getting there very efficiently) or a well-led but poorly managed enterprise (an organization that has a great end-point but no momentum toward it)? My point being – you need both.
James March of Stanford University brilliantly illuminated the difference between leadership and management, explaining that managers tended to focus on exploitation (doing what works today) while leaders spend more time on exploration (seeking out risky but potentially valuable new ways of doing things).5 Analytics can play a role in materially improving both leadership (exploring new things) and management (doing current things better).
Conventional wisdom and current practice see analytics being used today primarily as a management tool that assists enterprises in doing things better. In the future, we need to put analytical firepower in the hands of those who would lead the organization to discover better things to do.
Thornton May is Executive Director and Dean of the IT Leadership Academy. His latest book, The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics, positions analysts as heroes of the age we are about to enter.