How to Get Executives on Board with Data Visualization

Convincing senior executives to jump on the data visualization bandwagon isn’t as complicated as you think: here are five tips to get senior decision-makers on board.

One of the top challenges facing data visualization experts is getting executives on board. In her “State of Data Literacy, 2022” presentation at the International Literacy Day 2022 celebration, Valerie Logan, CEO and Founder of The Data Lodge, reports that data literacy champions are increasingly requesting support with executive engagement strategies. Why? Didn’t everyone already get the memo that data is essential to business success? Valerie suggests data literacy leaders engage senior leaders in three ways:

  1. Align based on objectives 
  2. Enlist executives as advocates of data literacy programs, and to also 
  3. Support executives by modeling strong data literacy abilities, and even vulnerability, as the senior most visible coaches in the organization. 

The 2022 NewVantage Partners survey found that only 26 percent of firms have become “data-driven,” and 92% blamed culture, not technology, as their biggest obstacle. Since executive leadership, messaging, and buy-in is a big part of culture, Valerie’s call to action to engage executives makes sense. 

But wait: most executives think they “get” data—we look at budgets, sales forecasts, and KPIs daily. But there’s a difference between basic data literacy and highly effective cultures, just as there’s a difference between novices and experts in every field. Also, there’s the question of scale — what percentage of employees use data to do their job better?

The effective use of data is exploratory, artistic, and strategic. It takes pervasive curiosity—an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconception with data; a willingness to explore the unknown. 

As an executive and data fan, here are five things to help persuade executives about the importance of data.

Speak ROI to Me. Executives love and live by measurable results. ROI-speak is the language of leaders, and it all boils down to one thing: measurable results. Here are five of our most beloved ways to do just that:

  1. Objectives: What I tell my board of directors we will achieve.
  2. Revenue: Money.
  3. Revenue Streams: Ways to make money.
  4. Risk Management. Ways to avoid missing objectives.
  5. Customer Retention. Stuff that helps me not lose customers.

The job of an executive is to decide how much to spend to achieve one of these five outcomes. That’s Return on Investment, or ROI— the difference between my achievement and what it costs. 

Describe your data in the context of how it contributes to the ROI equation. For example, as you write the title of your dashboard, summarize where I make, save, or risk losing money. If you want investment in a new data set, describe the value you expect to get from it in terms of revenue or risk management.

Use the language of ROI and your executive will be more receptive to your ideas about data. 

Scare Us. As behavioral economists discovered in 1979, humans hate losing things twice as much as acquiring them. This principle is called Loss Aversion. Use loss aversion to motivate executives. Tell us scary stories where data insights could have saved the day. Steven Franconeri from Northwestern University calls them “Gorilla Stories.”

For example, in 2012, Knight Capital, the Wall Street market maker, famously lost $440 million in 40 minutes from an algorithm gone bad. The mistake led to the company’s demise. The Knight Capital story motivated Wall Street executives to adopt new “circuit breaker” systems, technologies, and procedures to avert flash crashes. The fear of being next on the front page of the Wall Street Journal inspired a stampede of action.

Search for and share stories where data visualization gave insights to executives that could have saved the day. After the Knight Capital meltdown, many Wall Street executives realized that they, too, were blind to the insights needed to stop their own black swan event. Suddenly, real-time profit and loss (P&L) dashboards, real-time risk management, and alerting systems were very popular, and the initiatives to build them had senior-level attention. Nobody wanted to be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Inspire Us. Executives like to be inspired too! Find and share stories where data visualization helped discover and seize a new competitive edge. Executives love finding new ways to outfox competitors. When you find one, share it and see if you can incorporate it into your plans. 

One of my favorite recent examples comes from Singapore. The National University Healthcare System, or NUHS, uses data in real-time to augment frontline medical staff decisions. The system is called Endeavor, and it uses data to nudge staff to ask questions they might not have considered. It predicts a patient’s likelihood of cancer up to a year in advance. It suggests tests to run. 

You might think: “but I don’t work in healthcare.” It doesn’t matter. Many executives prefer to learn about techniques from different industries – it means the idea might still be undiscovered by their peers.

The ideas from Endeavor apply to any industry. In retail, data-driven interactions can improve customer retention (keep your money), predict what products might sell next (make more money), or automate frontline decision-making (save money).

Bring Solutions, Not Problems. When I was a kid, my mom put a sticker on our refrigerator: “Moan about any problem as long as you also bring two solutions.” Executives get a constant barrage of requests for resources, investment, and “helpful” ideas about what they can do better. It’s rare to meet people armed with solutions. 

When it comes to visual analytics, spot, and share opportunities. Look outside your company and your industry for inspiration. Do some legwork for us. And even if you can’t find innovative ideas, find good questions to ask; executives don’t have all the answers. Our job, and your job, is to deal with ambiguity. But we’re flying blind more than you realize. 

Shine a new light on our problems, and we’ll climb aboard the visualization bandwagon. 

Get to the Point, Fast and Slow. We’re all busy, but executives are exceptionally busy. Make your point in five minutes or less. 

And take your time to do it right. Heed Blaise Pascal’s advice: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” Before you try to influence an executive, do your research. The Singapore story took six months, 30 drafts, and dozens of hours of reading research to boil it down to a three-minute movie. 

Be the CEO–Chief Empathy Officer. When you’re in persuasion mode, think of yourself as the CEO or “Chief Empathy Officer,” as Joel Schwartzberg advises in Get to the Point! Sharpen Your Message and Make Your Words Matter. When your target is an executive, think about our objectives, ROI, and risks. Inspire us with ideas from peers. Warn us about impending doom. Come armed with solutions and ideas. Learn our language and you’ll gain the support you deserve for data.

Mark Palmer is the former CEO of StreamBase systems and head of products and engineering for TIBCO. He’s the co-author of “10 Things to Know About ModelOps,” World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer, and one of CDO Magazine’s Leading Voices in Data. He serves on the advisory Data Visualization Society.