by Rohan Light

Strategic CxOs extend the boundary of inquiry

Oct 05, 2016

Effective business management in the modern era involves getting clear about what things mean. The measure of something is also its limit and its boundary. Analytics is about explanation because it helps us see things with greater clarity.

About this blog

To be “enterprising” is to be eager to undertake or prompt to attempt. To show initiative and be resourceful. These are leadership traits, so to be enterprising is to lead. “Analytics” is how we use data to inform decision-making in the context of achieving business objectives. These are management practices, so analytics is about management.

“Enterprising Analytics” is about being creative, resourceful and adventurous with decision-making to achieve business objectives. It’s about the set of leadership and management practices that need to be in place for an organization to make the most of its analytics investment.

The word analytics is an unhelpful abstraction

Analytics is a vague term. It’s an abstraction. The original sense of the word abstraction was to pull away from the world. The current sense of the word is along the lines of an idea of something that has no real existence. In business, we fall prey to abstractions all the time. In his 2014 book Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek told us that this is where we commit our most egregious leadership errors. I’m inclined to agree.

The strategic CxO wants to take abstractions from the general to the specific. This changes the conversation to one about meaning. My first love is for history, and the best definition of history I’ve come across is that it’s an argument about what facts mean.

For me, effective business management in the modern era is about getting clear about what things mean. And not just reading from an economics text. Or the Harvard Business Review. Or quoting Jack Welch, Tony Robbins or whoever. It’s about applying brains to problem.

Analytics helps us measure innovation

For me, analytics is about measurement. And measurement is about explaining. When we seek to understand something, we set about measuring it. Well, in an ideal world anyway. Many businesses suffer the curse of measurement inversion. This is about measuring what you know. Which becomes about reinforcing what you have. Which is fine in a stable world. But when did we last have one of those?

The measure of something is also its limit and its boundary. We fill the space in between with information, and that information is directed toward explaining something. The measurement of administration is different from the measurement of innovation.

Administration is about the already explained, while innovation is about what we seek to understand. Innovation seeks explanation. This is why analytics can be so interesting. It’s about grinding a better lens to see distant planets. Or, rather, it can be. It can also be a convenient confirmation-bias generator.

Analytics is about finding the event horizon

Explanation isn’t about providing an answer. Our quest for answers is dangerous. It encourages us to think that the subject of inquiry has been settled. It can stop us from seeking further explanation. This can be particularly damaging in the profession of management and is something for strategic CxOs to be careful of.

Explanation is about shaping a topic. Shaping in the sense of making something smooth. In the sense of clearing away obstructions. There is always a choice in explaining something: what to leave out, what to bring into greater prominence, how to portray the topic in question.

Analytics is about explanation because it helps us see things with greater clarity. But why are we taking the measure of something in the first place? Why are we seeking to find the boundary of our subject of inquiry?

Because we want to know where the event horizon is. We want to know where the threshold effect starts. Because we want to control or affect the subject of inquiry up to that boundary. And we control something by defining it, by making it specific.

Strategic CxOs take better measurements

I’ve said that enterprise analytics is a leadership challenge, not a technical one. This is because strategic CxOs must in some way grapple with the challenge of starting at the unknown and moving toward the known.

Strategic CxOs aren’t interested as much in what is on the defined side of the boundary: They’re interested with what lies on the other side. We hire specialists to manage the known. Our task is to lead our people into the unknown.

This means going off the map. It means moving past the measured world and bringing measurement to the unmeasured world. But the paradigm of measurement we bring will define what we find. And the history of exploration is also the history of misunderstanding and heedlessness.

Because innovation is more important to the strategic CxO, proceeding off the map with the wrong set of measurements is a recipe for disaster. Or mediocrity. Take your pick.