It’s one thing to know your job and be in a position of authority. It’s another to be able to work with other departments to cultivate morale and truly drive the business forward.
About 10 years ago, my wife and I moved to Minnesota and bought a 2006 Toyota Corolla, leaving a vehicle-free East Coast life in the rearview mirror. The car got us through many harsh winters, but as our family grew, and as my wife began to enjoy the comfort of a new SUV, she wondered if it was time for me to upgrade as well.
She had some great points: Newer cars are safer, especially in nasty conditions, and the kids hated squeezing into the cramped back seat. But I argued the Corolla was paid for and still got me from point A to point B just fine, plus I knew its quirks like the back of my hand.
As the back and forth continued, I realized the same sort of conversation was going on at organizations all over the world, every day, about technology: IT teams defending old systems that still work, pointing at sunk costs and known idiosyncrasies just like I was with the Corolla; and business users talking up the benefits of new technology—modern capabilities, security, mobility—just as my wife had about her SUV.
Now a third player—data and analytics teams—has joined the tug-of-war, and created a dynamic that requires those in each corner to build cross-functional strategies in order to succeed. If you’re in the camp that believes that’s easier said than done, then I challenge you to think about how to use intellectual humility, empathy, and transparency to bring teams together and ultimately drive value for your organization.
In the September/October 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, Gino Franceso wrote in a story titled “The Business Case for Curiosity” that “higher levels of intellectual humility are associated with a greater willingness to consider views other than our own. … When we accept that our own knowledge is finite, we are more apt to see that the world is always changing and that the future will diverge from the present.”
That passage struck me because it aligned with something else I’ve discovered over the years: that friction between business, IT, and data leaders can sometimes be traced to intellectual hubris, which comes across as one team thinking it always knows what’s best.
Practicing intellectual humility, on the other hand, helps you to understand the value of diversity within a team. If everyone is just like you, then how do you expect to uncover new ideas?
Making intellectual humility part of your approach can also help you create a toolbox mentality, which I believe is key when working with a modern tech stack. More important than knowing one specific tool or technology is the ability to use multiple tools and discover when you might need a new one.
It’s like using the end of a saw to hammer a nail. Not only is it hard to do, it will probably lead to bloody fingers — and a lot of time spent dealing with the injury instead of focusing on the real problem: the nail. If I remain intellectually humble, however, I am more likely to find the right tool for the job.
someone who’s been working in technology for nearly 20 years, I can tell you
that lack of empathy is usually the root cause of tension between teams. This
can occur when one team minimizes the concerns of other teams, or fails to
recognize the pressures or constraints other teams are working under.
Let me give you an example. Several years ago, I received approval for an investment in new servers to support dynamic reporting. The request was approved, but I still remember a caveat in the official minutes: “This is not an endorsement of rushing things from POC to production without our full approval and supervision.”
I’ve never forgotten those words. Because regardless of the statement’s level of merit, my overriding feeling was that there was no empathy for what my team was trying to accomplish or respect for the business value and excitement we had generated. That hurt.
If empathy is a trait you’re lacking to some degree, then I suggest spending a day in someone else’s shoes. Even if you’re, say, an enterprise architect working on data strategy, it could be incredibly valuable to watch how a front-line employee uses your data to drive business decisions.
The third key trait I see in department leaders that work well together is transparency. As opposed to a “black box” solution, which is only understood by those who designed it, transparency breeds trust, and trust breeds productivity.
If you’re a data practitioner, this could mean showing more of your work even if you think it will seem too complicated. Often times, exposing just a little more data can help alleviate questions, and prevent those long email threads we all could do without. You should also use data to measure your work wherever possible rather than relying on anecdotes and stories.
I’m also a firm believer in being transparent about edicts. I once saw a data engineering team mandate that all source data be stored in a data lake without explaining why — or highlighting the new features unlocked in the lake. All that approach did was create more tension.
See the Light
Human beings don’t always see eye to eye. And that’s fine. But we can’t have tunnel vision. Departments and companies operate better when business users, IT units, and data and analytics teams look at and tackle situations with humility, empathy, and transparency. I didn’t need to buy a new car to come to that conclusion. But I did anyway, and boy am I glad. Winter has never felt so good with heating under the seats and in my steering wheel.