For Alexander Gordon Laing the search for, and discovery of, Timbuktu was a crowning achievement. He started on his adventure only days after being married because this journey was to be short, measuring only weeks. He had a trusted guide, and knowledge of the route. Comfortable with the environment, weather and terrain, his expedition set out in search of new opportunities that would mean wealth, prestige and cultural enrichment for him and the British Empire.
Liang was successful, but his assumptions had been way off. What he thought would be a journey measured in weeks, in fact, took over a year. His route was dangerous, leading him through the Sahara Desert where he and his expedition had to brave a harsh and unforgiving environment. His trusted guide conspired with bandits to beset the group and steal what provisions they had, resulting in a fight that would cost Laing his right hand. He overcame some pretty astounding odds to reach the fabled city. He achieved his goal and became the man that “discovered Timbuktu” for the British Empire, and yet he is a footnote in history. This is because while this is all technically accurate, his achievement was far from what he had hoped.
We know about Liang’s ordeal because a French explorer Rene Caillie discovered Timbuktu and along his way found the journal of one Alexander Gordon Laing. You see Caillie, it turns out, was the second European to discover Timbuktu. But he was the first to do so and live to tell the tale (a tiny, but important detail). Liang reached the city two years ahead of Caillie but was murdered after a very brief stay in the city. He found the city, but found none of what he was looking for, and lost everything along the way. I suppose that technically he was successful, but I am pretty sure he wasn’t satisfied with the outcome. That can frequently be the case when braving new territory or exploring new worlds. Success can be based on your perspective or on small details that end up making all the difference.
I think about the data field as being a new frontier, a world that holds both huge opportunities and huge risks. I think of corporate America as the nation-states of old, sponsoring explorers to brave these risks with the hope of uncovering untold wealth and glory for those who are successful. It is a field where everything is new, constantly changing, looking to be understood and exploited. Being an explorer in the brave new world of data is exciting. You can make your mark by being courageous and smart. But like our friend Laing, expectations and reality can be farther apart then you may like. Problems can arise from unanticipated directions and have a cost that is steep. Like any new frontier, even great people can get hurt, the most courageous can fail, and your success may remain lost until someone comes after you and tells your tale. To avoid his fate, here are three guideposts to get you all the way home.
When something is new it holds all the promise, potential, and risk that people are willing to perceive and grant to it, creating tremendous gaps between expectations and realistic outcomes. This dynamic can make driving a data and analytics strategy within an organization very tricky. If you are the “Christopher Columbus” of your organization, looking for ways to make your organization more data-driven in this brave new world of information, then you need to pay close attention. Gaps in expectations, resources and timing will be dangerous to your mission. You need to be prepared to address these gaps by actively managing expectations for yourself, your organization, and your team. If you don’t do this then the paths you choose will lead to disappointment, people will become frustrated, and opportunities will be missed.
A realistic and critical evaluation of both what your organization wants, and what it is willing (and able) to do to get it, is crucial when building any new competency for an organization. Though, this is particularly important within the field of data analytics.
Since this is a new field, there is a lot of excitement surrounding it. This leads to research from academics, studies by consultants, aggressive marketing and media coverage. This means that there are many other forces generating messages that are being sent to, and consumed by your organization, influencing your leadership, colleagues, and team members.
This creates a significant risk of disparity between what is desired, and what is possible within a given organization. We all know that in our industry the biggest challenges can appear small on the surface, while actually being very complex. When we form goals that are disconnected from what it will take to achieve them, it is much more likely that we will be disappointed in some way, when and if we see our results. So, like any pioneer, you need to know where you are going and why. You need to make sure that your direction is supported by your benefactor (or boss) and your team.
Trust, but don’t trust blindly
I tend to be skeptical, by nature. Trust is something I think is earned, over time and through many demonstrations. This is difficult in Corporate America because to some extent you have to trust in your colleagues to do what is right for the company, for their teams and for you. You need to hope that your organization has done the right things to ensure that trust is valued and warranted. Yet in today’s corporate environment politics is an ever-present dynamic making what is “right” difficult to agree upon. This is why trust weighs so heavily when doing something new in corporate America. If you are building a new analytics team or even just building a new analytic solution for your organization, you have to be able to trust those you are partnering with to realize your goal. There will be challenges along the way and your partner should help anticipate or solve them. You will have to rely upon them to carry your message, champion your cause and provide valuable insight. There is a good chance you will be exposed and vulnerable to some people, so you need to be sure they are worthy of your trust.
Therefore, pick your partners carefully, and ensure there is alignment and shared benefit in common outcomes. Be thoughtful without being paranoid, You won’t be able to deliver on your goal without trusting and working with (or through) others within your organization. In general people tend to be good and are happy to work with others to achieve something noteworthy, especially if they can share in the success and recognition. But when things go sideways or get difficult, you don’t want to find that the person who was guiding you through your journey, has sold you out to a local band of thugs.
Making it home
Success at too high a price is not success at all. Laing was a great example of this. You can absolutely succeed, and still, find yourself wondering what the hell happened to all of the wealth and riches that was supposed to follow. Obviously, this has a lot to do with expectations, but we have covered that. Instead, I suggest that you make sure you focus on the entirety of the journey and plan accordingly.
Data projects can be long and challenging and it can be easy to allow yourself to focus too much on the challenges that are immediately in front of you. As the scope of your effort grows, this can become increasingly true. Whether you are running a project, building a department, or leading an entire organization, you must operate in a dual mindset. You need to remain focused on your immediate priorities, while not losing sight of the overall journey.
This dual-mode mindset is challenging for any of us, but it is crucial. It’s our nature to focus on the tasks at hand, the immediate problem. These are the things you need to tackle now to move ahead tomorrow. But focusing on only the next immediate task at hand can lead you off course in the long run, despite the accomplishments you enjoyed along the way. Therefore, I encourage people in our field to constantly challenge themselves to step back and consider their progress from a macro point of view, looking ahead to see where they are relative to their goals.
There are many ways to assure you remain on the desired path, it is most important to you use one of them to measure your progress along the way.
Hopefully these guideposts can help you along your journey, no matter what it is. Your destination, your partners and a plan that gets you all the way home safely seems obvious, but it can be more elusive than you think. So data pioneer, consider these things before setting out on your journey – and become famous, rather than a footnote.