Data has the potential to transform the way we work, but many organisations are at a loss as to what this magical transformation looks like.

At the moment data often gets collected as a by-product of other activity, and then sits around collecting dust, with an occasional annual outing for a special event.

Harnessing data to its true potential is often less about charts and hiring a data scientist, and more about changing the behaviours of our people.

ChapmanCG’s Alexis Starkey spoke to Lillian Grace, CEO and Founder of Figure.NZ, about her top tips to help people leaders and HR professionals to head the data revolution.

1. Ask the right questions first

People often leap straight into the data and what is right in front of you. There are millions of different data sets out there, and ways of using them.

Taking a step back to ask the right questions first is critical to ensuring you are not limited to the data you already have, and to prevent you from being distracted by information rabbit holes that are irrelevant to the big picture.

You can start with these questions:

  • What don’t we know that we wish we knew?

Brainstorm the big questions, and then reduce this down to the key questions you think might have the biggest impact on your work.

  • What would we do differently if we had the answer?

Asking this question is key to the whole process, because you want the work you do to have the best impact possible. You don’t want to spend a lot of time and effort for the data to just sit there. This will also help you anticipate future hurdles in your project.

  • How would we find this out?

Think about what sort of information out there might help you to find the answer. It may be a few different types of information – for example existing reports and data sets available both internally and externally – that you could piece together.

  • Where can we find the information?

Do we have it already, and if not who else has it? A lot of data is currently available publicly, or you could approach an organisation that you think might be willing to share it. Chances are someone else may have thought about this issue before you or have expertise in this area, which can save you a lot of time and money. If it is not available, how can we collect it?

2. Create an environment where people can ask questions freely

In the past, leaders were the people who held the most information and knowledge and often didn’t like admitting when they didn’t know something. This limits our working to what we already know.

It is often working out what we don’t know and then helping people to be agile and responsive to new information that will make you a transformative leader.

  • As a leader, set the team culture by saying when you don’t know something, and ask lots of questions yourself.
  • Run meetings where you encourage your team to ask each other lots of questions and put these discussions at the core of your meeting, rather than presenting updates.
  • Start testing your organisation’s existing assumptions. Data can be used to test an existing hypothesis as well as helping to surface new information.
  • Create an environment where people talk about whether something is an assumption or has an evidence base. For example, you can start by saying ‘My theory is…’ or ‘This data is telling us…’

3. Create space to think and learn

The big, important questions that will have an impact on the future of our organisations won’t be answered overnight.

We have a tendency to want answers straight away, but our brains don’t work like that. They need time to process information. More often than not, that great answer will come to us in the shower when our brain has been mulling over information in the background for a few days.

  • Give people time to come up with answers, and space to go away and think about things. Some people like to think on the spot and bounce ideas off each other, and others need time to process. Often a combination of both is helpful.
  • Where possible, give people information and the discussion topic plenty of time ahead of a meeting so they have time to digest it.
  • Ask your team what their preferred thinking and communication style is. As a people leader, you can then get the best out of people by responding to their preferred working styles. We ran a survey with the Figure.NZ team, which you can find on our website.
  • Set aside some time to think, and get out of the office if you can. For big challenging problems, I often think best outdoors and away from the office environment.
  • Pause in meetings or discussions. You can say ‘give me a minute to think about that’, or give someone else a bit of time to think things through. It’s a simple thing to do that will often enable us to come up with more thoughtful ideas, but we very rarely do it.
  • At the end of the day, get everyone in the team to share something new they learned that day. That helps to foster an environment of constant learning and encourages people to share what they didn’t know but now do.

4. Embrace agile working for strategies too

Having great answers to your big questions is not helpful if you then continue doing things the way you always have.

Being agile and testing things out as you go enables you to adapt as the landscape changes and more information emerges.

We are great at applying agile working to product development, but we need to start applying this to strategies too.

You can do this by:

  • Asking questions about the future of your project or organisation, and defining the key ones you want answered.
  • Working out the first best step in getting there.
  • Focus on achieving that first step, which people often call a ‘sprint’ – for example collecting the information, or analysing the information.
  • Stopping to take stock and ask more questions. This is a good time to look at data and see if your context has changed.
  • Working out the next best step or your next sprint.

Senior executives and boards need to operate in an agile way too. It’s no good having a three-year business plan that stays the same while your environment, customers and competitors evolve around you.

You can be agile at a governance level by working to a vision, rather than a plan. We should always be asking what should we be doing to get to that vision now, rather than just reporting on an old strategy.

5. Have a whole-of-organisation approach

Organisations are beginning to realise that integrating data is not just about a single work stream, but changing the way the whole organisation works.

  • Make it part of everyone’s job description. Using data should be an integral part of everyone’s job, not just the domain of a data scientist or analyst. Think about what using data really means. Rather than saying ‘use data’, which creates fear in a lot of people, require people to say how they know something and give them time to think.
  • Invest in helping your people to learn about data. This includes how to best collect it, analyse it, share it, and its limitations.
  • Put behaviour change at the core of any change management strategies. The success of data use will come down to our ability to use it in creative ways that have an impact on the business, rather than the act of collecting and analysing it.

Organisations often talk about putting data in the driver’s seat, but the data is nothing without great people who know how to think about it and use it well.

The first evolution of data was simply sharing it more freely, and the next will be creating a world where everyone has the freedom to ask the big questions and respond to what the data is telling them.

Lillian Grace is the founder and CEO of
Figure NZ, a not-for-profit organisation that is creating a data democracy in New Zealand by helping to make data widely available and teaching people how to use it.

Lillian brings a new perspective on data, one where data is a language in which everyone can be fluent, not just experts. She believes societies, organisations and individuals will benefit when anyone can use data to inform their thinking and insights without requiring intermediaries.