Great marketing analytics can’t drive managerial courage, but the reverse is true.
Recently, I decided to have coffee with an old acquaintance of mine. He has been in almost every company imaginable and has such a specialized role that he is in constant demand. Every few years, there is an explosion on innovative management books designed to put him out of business — yet he remains in high demand.
Nobody was already at the café when I arrived. He was sitting in the middle of the café wearing a shiny grey suit, black shirt and sunglasses perched on his slicked-back salt and pepper hair, purposefully baiting my awe and contempt. He flashed a big toothy grin as I approached.
“Hi, ‘Nobody.’ I hope I did not keep you waiting,” I said, trying to hide my disdain.
“Nah, it’s all good,” he replied. “I was just people watching.”
“So what have you been up to?” I asked.
“Same old, same old … consulting business is as good as ever.” To punctuate his point, he grinned and leaned back with hands behind his head, as if he were ready to fall back into a hammock.
“Yeah, tell me what you do, again?” I asked.
“My consultancy focuses on accountability. It is really a simple model. When something breaks down in the workplace, or there is a failure to perform, I am called in to take accountability. Usually, when I show up, people will be stressed out. The guilty parties think someone else is responsible or are looking to share the blame, leadership does not want to create a toxic environment, and everyone wants to just move on. As a result, I come in. Everyone points to me, and they agree that it is Nobody’s fault.”
“Wow! And what do you charge for this service?”
“Depends, but it is usually a large percentage of gross revenue or net profit, depending on the size and type of failure I assume responsibility for. Business is great!”
My memory of our last conversation is suddenly jarred.
“That’s right; last we talked, we discussed how the wave of data-driven management was going to put you out of business. Wasn’t there some concern that measurement and analytics were the new wave of human capital management and that through measurement, greater accountability would come about?”
“Nobody” brightened up and leaned forward. His eyes opened up and his jaw slackened in awe of his luck.
“Yeah, that was what I was afraid of,” he said, “but it turns out, this big data threat has turned out to be a big hoax. You see, I was not called in because accountability was difficult; I was called in because accountability was icky. No amount of data and measurement will help my clients generate a healthy approach toward accountability if they don’t have the vision of what good accountability looks like. “
I had always disliked Nobody. While he feared the disinfecting power of data, I spent a good part of my career preaching the gospel of insightful data. I had always seen him as a Luddite; someone unaware and clinging to old ways. However, after this insightful confession, I found a sudden rush of respect for him. He knew things about business that I was now just learning for myself.
“Nobody, you are right,” I said. “I don’t deal with accountability directly, but I am often asked to help clients with data-driven customer strategy and marketing effectiveness. I have found that the analytics part is easy. However, it is often lack of clarity, purpose, and vision that prevents data and analytics from being effective.”
He smugly flashes that familiar, self-satisfied, toothy grin and instinctively my resentment reappears. However this time, it’s a different resentment. This time, my disdain is seeded with a healthy and well-deserved sense of respect and fear.
“You know your business model is still destined for obsolescence,” I insist. “It is just a matter of time. Wait till artificial intelligence shows up.” I am embarrassed as soon as the words part my lips. I feel small and helpless, like a kid fighting off a bully by threatening to call in an older sibling.
“Nobody” senses the change in our dynamic. He leans in closer than at any time in our conversation. Like a Bond villain, secure in his advantage, unafraid to share a horrifying truth.
“YOU-DON’T-GET-IT.” He pauses after each word, maximizing the dramatic effect, entirely playing out the Bond villain cliché.
“Data, AI, analytics — none of this matters, unless you have the courage and vision to use it in transformative ways. In fact, in this data-driven age, managers are so enamored by what they CAN do, it is hard to think about what they SHOULD do. As a result, my friend, managerial courage and vision are harder than ever. ”
Damn, he’s good.