Competing With Data & Analytics
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Below the waters of Stockholm Harbor lie the ghostly ruins of the 17th century battleship Vasa. Commissioned by Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus, the ship was a technological and military marvel in its day, boasting two gun decks with a total of 48 24-pound shot cannons — a major improvement over ships that typically had a single gun deck with 12-pound shot cannons. Its arrival threatened to upset the balance of power in the Baltic Sea and deliver control of the lucrative trade routes of northern Europe.
The vessel’s actual military service was embarrassingly short-lived, however. On its maiden voyage on Aug. 10, 1628, a gentle harbor breeze capsized the vaunted ship just a few hundred meters from its Stockholm dock, in full view of the crowds of cheering Swedes who had come to see its grand debut.
The loss of the ship was both a financial catastrophe and a political embarrassment. When the king’s privy council convened a full inquest, the shipbuilders pleaded innocence — they had built the ship to specifications approved by the king himself. How could they possibly be at fault?
Based on my experience working with hundreds of companies, the same problems that plagued Vasa’s construction — suboptimal communication between technical and business teams and the lack of joint ownership of outcomes — are common when companies try to build their Big Data capability. To overcome these issues, leaders need to absorb three key lessons about how to manage the inherent tensions between defining technical requirements and achieving valuable business outcomes.
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Let technical experts help define success. Business leaders need to understand how to communicate with technical managers in a way that clearly conveys business needs but doesn’t impose technical judgments that they are not qualified to make. This can be tricky, because apparent business requirements can have hidden technical requirements that are difficult to identify. The Swedish king thought of the second deck on his battleship as being a military feature and did not consider the structural instability that the higher gun deck created. To avoid issuing impossible orders, business leaders need to get buy-in from their technical experts while establishing business goals in the first place.
Align compensation with outcomes. Many subject-matter experts have non-variable pay.