Make Data Matter

It’s never about the data. It’s about what the data can help us understand, and how it can bring us together to act. Articulating that value is how we truly make data matter. [Disclaimer: This article was written just before the start of Canada’s COVID-19 lockdown, and so much has changed in the months since its publication. That said, the messages remain the same. I’d even say they matter more than ever, as companies are learning to adapt to a changing world.]

Recently in a meeting, someone asked me the question,  “Why do you love data?” It caught me off guard, because no one had ever asked me that question before, and it surprised me that I didn’t even have to think about the answer. It just flew out of my mouth: “I don’t. I don’t love data.”

I know what you’re thinking. “Whaaaat?! But, Laura, your career, and your business, are all about data. How can you say that?”

Just hear me out.

Data just as data doesn’t do it for me. Sure, I totally geek out when I have numbers in front of me, and I love sitting and reading through a pile of statistics. But it’s not the process of collecting, compiling and analyzing that excites me. The numbers are cool, and definitely necessary, but what I truly love is the potential data offers. The creative process that comes from its use (when it’s used properly!). The outcomes that emerge.

So, bottom line: I’m totally hooked on data’s superhero ability to effect change, but it’s not about the information in its purest form. For me, it’s about three key benefits that always stand out.

Data has the potential to be the great equalizer.

We’ve all been in situations where opinion and speculation seem to trump the data. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not that there isn’t any room for opinion or the wisdom of experience, because there are times that call for innovation and risk.

But data has the unique ability to level the playing field. When information has a seat at the table, it can change, or even silence, even the loudest opinionated voice. There is tremendous value in reality—when you have definitive numbers staring you in the face, there is no debate or argument that can change what is. Data presents the truth. Yes, it can be interpreted a number of  different ways, and there are a ton of creative approaches to working with what we know to be true—but no matter what tactic is taken or what decisions are made, the backbone is fact.

My favourite example of this came from my experience with a former corporate retailer in Canada. The top executive had been with the company for decades, and was skeptical of data that he felt wasn’t representative of what he believed to be true. (In fact, he often looked for ways to spin data to validate his opinion!) But stats don’t care about your personal truths. They only care about what is best for your business. I was halfway through presenting the narrative supplied by the data when this exec stopped me, and said, “Are you telling me…” and outlined a strategy contrary to his belief system, a strategy rooted deeply in what the research had revealed.

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” I said.

He looked at me, around the room, stood up, ripped a page out of the presentation deck, scribbled a couple of notes on it and left the meeting. When he came back to a mystified room, we learned he’d dropped the paper on someone’s desk, said, “Fix it” and came back. I then heard a quiet, “Thank God” from one of the others in the room.

Now, I’m not advising that you employ this Devil Wears Prada method of leadership, but the story illustrates how a “lightbulb moment” can emerge from a level field. That’s what data can do.

Data gives us a lens with which to view the world.

“We can’t see the forest for the trees.” We’ve all heard someone use this idiom. It implies that things are fuzzy; that there is a lack of vision. Where business decisions are concerned, companies often know they’re in a forest, and that they need a path out, but they spend all of their time dealing with a single tree that appears to block the way. Data, when it’s executed and interpreted properly, has the ability to strategically clear a path. Or, if the path is clear but there’s a fork in the road, it helps to steer toward the more successful exit. It should also help a company to avoid rocks and roots along the road, if the data is being given the credit its due. Data provides a line of sight like nothing else can.

But it’s also not that easy. Data isn’t going to magically give a business a five-year plan—nor should it. When companies become predictive about their decisions, when they’re essentially playing too long a game, it can also be a problem. It needs to be used to give a clear picture of where something is today, and to help make decisions about the future. It can help to inform a longer look but it shouldn’t hinder a business’s ability to adapt, to take a new turn if it arises along the way. Sometimes a company may even have to turn back to avoid a tumble. That’s okay. It’s better to listen to the data now than to find yourself even more lost later.

Data provides collective clarity and gets people moving in the same direction.

To me, data only works when everyone is on the same page. My clients know what their problem is, most of the time—or they at least have an idea of what’s wrong or needs tweaking—but they need to listen to the story the data presents to help inform the solution. Clarity starts way back at the beginning, with the type of questions being asked during the data collection stage, carries through determining the path forward, and then rolls out to those who need to make it happen. The solutions that arise from this creative process are the promise of big data.

But once the solution is set, it needs to be made clear to everyone. No one is walking through the forest alone, and if someone wanders off in a different direction? Chances are, it’s going to add time and money to the achieving the desired end result. Clarity helps to prevent people from going rogue. Making sure everyone knows the road, as well as their part along the journey, will make the data pay off that much easier. This comes with clear planning and communication. A company can make hundreds of beautiful dashboards but if the messages, calls to action and steps forward aren’t clear, a team will find themselves right back at the beginning in no time. And no one wants to face the same forest again, right?


I’ve taken storytelling before and struggled to apply it to the work I do. This is 100% relevant and can be applied tomorrow!

–Process Improvement Consultant, Telecom

Like what you're reading? Sign up for our newsletter

Great data storytelling is a skill, not a talent. Great data storytellers know that facts alone don’t inspire change, and they share a common set of habits that set them up for success every time. Read on to learn more about these practices so you can employ them, too. …
At the base level, data storytelling isn’t that different from creative storytelling. You need a hook and a way to keep your audience engaged. Enter the “but, therefore” rule—a way to structure stories to make them more meaningful and memorable. …
We’re back for part two on this hotly contested topic. We say dashboards have their place in business, and in data storytelling. You just have to know what you’re looking for. …