Analytics Programs: Why They Fail, and How to Succeed


Each conference I attend seems to take on a theme. I attribute some of it to the talks I present and how that inspires others to ask me questions about the topic. At the most recent SAS Analytics Experience event, I presented a table talk about what causes analytics programs to fail. [editor's note: SAS is the sponsor of this website.] Generally, when an analytics program starts to fail, part of the problem centers around the leadership team, but the culture can also contribute to the failure.

Is Resistance Rewarded?

Usually the main factor is leadership team. You might think that if we all agree in a meeting on a strategy, what else is there to do but implement and get on with work? One of my former colleagues tells a very funny story about how she met her husband. Back in the 1970s, her acting vice president wanted a project from another department stopped. For over six months she was on a secret assignment! She used several maneuvers, such as questioning each decision, dragging her feet on tasks, and so on, to inhibit progress. Eventually the project did fail. She attributed it to a poor concept rather than her ingenious strategies. But her second happy ending was that a fellow team member found her thoroughness so attractive he married her!

I had forgotten about this story until I was talking to an older gentleman at the conference. Years before, he was leading an effort to turn the company into a data-driven entity. He shook his head noting the entire experience was full of political land mines and sometimes meetings were nothing short of trench warfare. Some members of the leadership team did not fully support the program and worked to undermine him. The eventual resolution was that those leaders either left the company or were asked to leave. The analytics program could move forward and is successful today. (It's not clear if anyone met their mate.)

(Image: Becky Stares/Shutterstock)

(Image: Becky Stares/Shutterstock)

Change is Hard for Organizations

It's not always clear why resistance occurs. In the above scenario, it could have been the culture pushing back on the change. Perhaps the leaders had spent several years building an empire and felt the change threatened their positions or livelihood. Maybe the leaders trust their actual life experience more than what the numbers report. Perhaps they think money on analytics programs could be better spent elsewhere.

Maybe the organizational culture is not able to change easily. This Forbes article notes that 45% of employees generally prefer the status quo. How do you encourage an organization to move forward when half of them like the way things are? Another gentleman at the conference said he believed the resistance to analytics may come from the poor understanding of statistics or how analytics helps organizations. Sometimes people don't like to admit a lack of knowledge. Certainly, statistics has a reputation for being difficult to understand and even being accused of being damned lies on occasion. What may be apparent to some, is mysterious to others. He suggested training to assist with level-setting for the leadership team.

What's clear to me is that change requires carefully planning. Each organization is different. Some can more readily adopt to change while others require years to change. Teams must be prepared to deal with resistance in its many forms to help the organization move forward.

Do you have a story about a failed or even successful change in an organization?

Tricia Aanderud, Senior SAS Consultant for Zencos

Tricia Aanderud, Director, Data Visualization Practice at Zencos Consulting, provides SAS Consulting services to organizations that need assistance understanding how to transform their data into meaningful reports and dashboards. She has co-authored three books with her most recent title "Introduction to SAS Visual Analytics". She regularly shares data visualization tips and SAS knowledge through her BI Notes blog (http://www.bi-notes.com). Tricia has a background in technical writing, process engineering, and customer service. She has been an enthusiastic SAS user since 2002 and has presented papers at the SAS Global Forum and other industry conferences.

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Re: Changes
  • 10/13/2017 3:13:45 PM
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@Tricia: More to the point, this gets into a person's willingness to accept an idea if it comes from him- or herself.

The best persuasion, I have always believed, has been to gradually coax and guide someone along with a set of facts and circumstances in a carefully crafted way such that they decide for themselves that your conclusion is correct before you have even presented your conclusion. (Conversely, this is the inherent problem with presenting your thesis first. Otherwise, your audience may be apt to mentally cross their arms and think, "Oh, yeah? Well, PROVE it.")

Re: Changes
  • 10/13/2017 3:10:51 PM
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@Tricia: If they are paying that much attention to Likes, then, IMHO, they very clearly do not fully understand what it is.

I mean, unless and until Likes become the latest form of online currency.

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 11:09:05 AM
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I think education and then following up with actions is the key to instilling a culture of change. If you look at successful companies, most do not even make the product that they started with. Dupont no longer makes black gun powder, GE doesn't make light bulbs, Intel doesn't make meory chips, etc. The key to survival is change.

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 10:48:01 AM
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Nice. Sounds nicer than cultures where it terrifying if you do anything wrong - you are concerned you will be unemployed or ostracized.

Now you are sending me down a research path!  Thanks.  Let me know if you have any other ideas about this topic or any exploration paths ... 

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 10:39:12 AM
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The idea was to reward the effort and the try. The management realized that many times you learn more from a failure than you do from a success. The whole idea was to make employees want to take risks- there was only an upside, not a downside.

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 10:20:33 AM
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Failure parties/awards?  How did that work?  Oh I'm so curious.

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 10:04:57 AM
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I think it is a combination of both. I worked with a startup company that had failure parties and awards ( as well as for success). It really changed the culture and people were motivated to try new things.

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 10:02:14 AM
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That's so true.  Wonder if it makes any difference if incentives are given?  Or does it have to be culture driven? 

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 9:13:27 AM
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We all have our little ways to resist change. It is really hard to develop a culture of accepting change. The companies that are able to do this are the long term survivors ( the same holds true for marriages).

Re: Changes
  • 10/12/2017 7:09:11 AM
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>If it's not broken, don't fix it 

This is probably the hardest objection to overcome! I think its especially true when it's something small. My husband likes robotic things - so we have a lot of automatic stuff in the house. It gets frustrating to me sometimes ... when I just want to open the door, turn on the TV ...etc. He has finally started to consider what he calls WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor). 

This means the new "fix" cannot be annoying to use or difficult to remember how to use it.  :-)

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