I was told recently about a people analytics group that prided itself on its independence. They did not mingle with operations, they never made site visits, and they did not explain their models. They aspired to be the alternative view, uncorrupted by “the way things have always been done.” They reasoned that it’s easier to see things clearly when not down in the muck.
If you spend any time studying decision-making, you know this kind of independence is highly prized. Sources get more weight if they are uncorrelated with other sources. But if you spend time in organizations, you know this approach has a downside, too. In practice, decisions rarely come down to the optimal weights prescribed in a model.
For better or worse, in the messy real world of ambiguous evidence and contentious objectives, organizational decisions — especially those about the people you’re hiring, developing, managing, and trying to retain — usually hinge on relationships and trust.
To have impact, analysts must learn to traffic in that currency. And to accomplish that, they must wade into the muck. In the end, perfect independence is not a virtue but a vice.
Sig Mejdal, one of the most successful analysts in baseball, understands this. Mejdal left a career as an aeronautical engineer to work for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005, the dawn of the Moneyball era. Helping with the team’s player draft, he was there for a successful seven-year run, including two World Series championships. After moving to the Houston Astros with new general manager Jeff Luhnow in 2012, he helped rebuild that long-suffering franchise, culminating in yet another World Series in 2017.
How does Mejdal spend his time? In the summer of 2017 he was a coach in Troy, New York, deep in the Astros minor league system. This 51-year-old was wearing a uniform, coaching first base, warming up players, and eating with the team after games. The top analyst in the organization spent his summer evenings riding the team bus between small towns in upstate New York!
The Astros are considered a model for blending analytics with traditional expertise. They took this unusual approach with Mejdal because of their commitment to embedding analytics in the organizational DNA. They wanted to break down the barriers that typically exist between those who think in regressions and those who can hit 95-mile-per-hour fastballs. They wanted to create opportunities for players and coaches to ask “the analyst” questions and for the analyst to ask questions of them. It worked so well in 2017 that Mejdal did a second tour the next summer.
Analysts in all kinds of organizations can learn from a baseball executive riding a minor league bus. I’ve worked as an analyst in academia and industry for almost 20 years, slowly coming to appreciate this approach. As I’ve studied the matter and learned from others, a few practices have stood out. We can see them in Mejdal’s example, and we’ll look at them in more detail below.
Some of these tactics are useful in any job that involves shaping decisions in an organization, while others are tailored to the unique challenges in analytics. They are all geared toward individual analysts, though — not their managers or organizations — because perfect conditions for influence rarely exist, and we cannot depend on others to create them for us. An analyst wanting to make an impact must play an active role.
It’s a shame that spreadsheets and cocktail parties don’t mix better. For many analysts the idea of networking is not only uncomfortable but dubious. Some feel it’s possible to be good at models or good with people, but not both, as if caring about relationships undermines one’s technical work. This mindset is a real handicap given how much analytic work depends on other people. As was said of Jim Wright after he was deposed as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1980s, “Being a loner eliminates a safety net of both information and goodwill.”
More than four decades of empirical research suggests that people derive professional benefits, including both formal and informal power in organizations, from the size and structure of their social network. For the past 10 years, I’ve looked more closely at this relationship by assessing the influence behavior of thousands of executives and students.
Turns out, logical reasoning (a hallmark of analysts) and network building are two of the influence tactics used together least often. Many analysts are conditioned to believe that you shouldn’t have to get to know people if you are sufficiently good at your job. I am regularly astounded by how eye-opening they find networking research, even in 2019.
Because it’s rare, the ability to excel at both logical reasoning and relationship building is especially valuable. One trick is to get to know people before you need them. Waiting to build a relationship until it serves a purpose is ineffective and disingenuous. The alternative, investing in relationships continuously, takes discipline. Today’s urgent needs tend to crowd out longer-term investments, but cultivating relationships removes the hidden agendas that leave many analysts feeling queasy about networking.
Go to the Field
Analysts, almost by definition, traffic in secondhand information. Often secluded in an office remote from the front lines, they are subject to the perception of being out of touch and uninvested. Decision makers, on the other hand, are more likely to be on the front lines, or at least to have come from the front lines. Analysts must find ways to bridge that gap.
Sergio Vieira de Mello was one of the most successful diplomats of his generation. He spent his entire career with the United Nations, working in trouble spots around the globe — Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Iraq, among others — as well as at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Spending time in the field was one of his negotiation strategies. “Sergio preferred to be in the field, to find out what people needed,” a longtime associate observed. “But he also knew that being in the field gave him more credibility in political discussions when he returned to capitals.”
Going to the “field” is about learning, first and foremost. But it is also about building trust. We’ve known since Aristotle that ethos is a vital part of rhetoric. We might like to think a model, an idea, or a data set should stand on its own, but that is simply not how people are persuaded. They care about the persuader. They need to believe in the person selling the idea.
When the decision makers are in the field, or from the field, anyone without that experience is suspect. And different. This poses an ethos problem for most analysts and is an important fight to take up. You need evidence of personal familiarity with the front lines — stories, contacts, concrete examples. Find ways to accumulate that evidence. You’ll also learn something along the way.
Avoid Black Boxes
People have a hard time believing what they don’t understand — especially when the information contradicts received wisdom. This is a real challenge if you are working with statistical tools invented only in recent years and communicating with colleagues who have no statistical training at all. But this is your problem, not theirs.
Click here to continue reading Cade Massey’s article.