December 9, 2022

Learning from Advent – reflections for data & analytics leaders

By Paul Laughlin

This year I have been much more aware of the season of Advent. It marks the beginning of the church year & is a time that means so much more than just a countdown to Christmas. Most people come across the term in relation to chocolates hidden behind cardboard doors. But it takes its name from the Latin word “adventus” meaning “coming“. It was used to refer to the coming of a great person (like the return of conquering emperors).

For the Christian church, it is a time of looking forward to the coming of Jesus (as celebrated at Christmas). But the focus & this time of reflection has a deeper & broader meaning. The attention of Christians is drawn to both the past, the present & the future. Church readings reflect on Jesus’ birth, current spiritual presence with believers and future return in triumph. Celebrating the past, being present in the here and now, plus looking forward to a future vision.

It is these three ways of paying attention during this time which set me musing on festive lessons for data & analytics leaders. Whether you are a person of faith, agnostic or a convinced atheist – I hope there are some helpful reflections for you here. In this post, I will share my experience of the benefits of pausing to reflect during Advent. How celebration, perseverance & patience can help all types of data leaders. I hope it inspires & encourages you too.

Looking back and taking time to celebrate successes

In this fast-paced world, many of us take too little time to pause and celebrate our successes. Together with the non-stop stream of new demands or opportunities, many have risen to leadership roles because of a driven personality type. Both these aspects can tempt leaders to hardly draw breath after completing one challenging project before they start on another. Sadly team members will often then mimic what they see in their leaders.

But people benefit from milestones in their lives (ways of marking the passing of weeks, months & years) and we need such pauses. If your team are always striving for the next challenge without being able to savour successes, they are heading for burnout. Silicon Valley may trumpet the morals of “fail fast, fail often” but balanced human beings need slow as well as fast time, success as well as failure.

So, akin to how Advent looks forward to a joyous celebration at Christmas, when did you last celebrate with your team? Rituals and familiar calendars often help people, we are by nature creatures of habit. That is why the liturgies of the church year have stood the test of time. So, how could you as a data or analytics leader lean into the theme of this season? How could you look back with your team over what has been achieved this year? Where could you notice success (and people) that may have been overlooked? Could you role model that it is ok to stop & say well done? When did you last treat yourself or plan a celebration for all you have achieved this year?

Being present as you persevere on your journey

The internet is awash with blog posts, videos and other content purporting to give you the answer as to how to transform your business. How to be wildly successful in both learning data science & deploying AI. How to quickly learn new programming languages or master agile ways of working. Much is hogwash. If you ask any successful data or analytics leader they will tell you that it takes time. Many of my interviews with such leaders on our podcast have revealed the journey they needed to take. Normally a journey that required, grit, determination and perseverance. Mastery comes through a commitment to practice.

As mindfulness apps have entered the mainstream, many have learnt the benefits of a calm time and “being present“. There is truth in that. All too easily we can live our lives on a harried autopilot. Failing to notice the beauty around us and daily opportunities for gratitude. Being more present, both for others in our lives and noticing our own thoughts and behaviours can really help. But I think there is another undervalued attitude that data leaders need.

I’m thinking of perseverance (or if you like the modern parlance “stick-ability”). Some reflection on your experience to date will no doubt show you that your progress & the building of a team took time. Like the proverbial Rome, effective data or analytics functions are not built in a day. There can be so many technical and softer skills that writers like me will advise such leaders need. But let me recommend one that makes a huge difference – don’t give up. An overlooked difference between those who succeeded as such leaders and those who did not is that the former didn’t quit. Through success & failure, they persisted. On exciting & boring days they kept working. When they felt like it and when they did not, they showed up for their team. Can you set yourself to do the same?

Patiently getting closer to your inspiring vision

Dogged determination to keep on going is one key, but it also helps to have a destination. Firstly, having painted an inspiring vision for what you are building should motivate you & your team. Secondly, it should act as a North Star or guiding light to help you avoid going around in circles. Have you drawn such a vision? If not, I recommend you take time out to do so. There can be great value in having a vision and long-term plan. It can also greatly improve recall and visibility if you communicate it visually.

But, I’ve written on that aspect before. So, let me build on that technical advice by focusing on the attitude which supports that approach. In one word, patience. Realise from the outset that implementing your vision will take time. With regard to technology, it has wisely been observed that we overestimate its potential in the short term but underestimate the difference it will make in the long term. So, do not be put off by underwhelming pilots or first rollouts. Develop your ability to wait and appreciate gradual progress.

A wise data leader is not thrown off track by short-term issues. They know that progress both in building capability and in transforming an organisation will be incremental & cumulative. Do not miss the power of small incremental changes that are relevant & improve effectiveness. But also learn from the world of investment the power of cumulative interest. Step-by-step improvements to data quality, data understanding & analytical capability will pay dividends. Reinvesting those dividends in meeting need after need in receptive business areas will grow both your reputation & their willingness to change.

Are you reflecting at Advent? What are you learning as a result?

I hope those festive thoughts have inspired your own reflections & planning. Do you recognise the need (like Matthew at the start of his Christmas story) to reflect on the past & celebrate successes? Are you in need of more perseverance now (like Mary & a “little donkey” on the way to Bethlehem)? Should you focus on a more patient pursuit of your vision (like wise men following that star)?

Whichever virtue chimes with you, I wish you well in developing appreciation, perseverance & patience. May you see much success as you approach your roles in this way. Plus, of course, I wish you a wonderful Christmas this year. Advent greetings!