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Building Data Products When Change Is All Around You
“Conceptual ideas for data products are nice, but how do I do that in the midst of all this chaos I work in?” In the past month, I’ve had more than 5 conversations centered on how to create priorities and get investment when change is happening everywhere in an organization. Why? Well, change is the reality everywhere right now. Organizations are under stress, people are moving at a rate unfathomable just a few years ago, and with stocks and pre-IPO valuations under increasing pressure, building strategically and for the long term makes many of us say “does it really matter?”
I’ll be the first to say “I don’t know”. I don’t know every company, every organization or every leadership team. In some cases, the changes are so severe that getting the right thing prioritized will fall victim to organizational chaos. What I do know is there are ways to think about data product investment in the midst of chaos and change that at minimum make it more likely that those investments will persist and even thrive, no matter the organizational developments around you.
The first step is to recognize the chaos of the change around you and to listen, rather than react. As it unfolds, everyone has an opinion or approach of what they want. But those opinions are in response to short-term, chaotic pressures that won’t survive the long term. They might check a box in the short term. Might being the key word. But realistically, there are only a few investments that transform things in the long run. The key here is to not try to keep up with the noise around you. Look for behaviors, not opinions. Look for patterns, not random ideas that hold for 1-2 days. This will help you filter through noise.
The second step is to identify a few things that really matter. That’s why I mentioned looking at the behaviors of those around you. Don’t just look at what they are doing, but also take note of what they are not doing. If you rely on peoples’ opinions to prioritize your work, you’re going to shift what matters in your mind at least every 2 weeks. But peoples’ behaviors, while erratic, have much more consistency to them. What decisions are they making? What are they relying on to make those decisions? What assets could potentially make those decisions better or easier? It is a dashboard, a metric, a UI improvement? Your list of data products that matter should be those that could a) better support or strengthen the decisions being made in the moment or b) could steer people toward actions or important steps that they are not taking right now.
The third step is to not wait. Don’t wait for permission to do something that you think is critical. This goes against organizational dynamics and structure, but the truth is, in the midst of change, people aren’t paying as close attention to what individual things are happening as they might be in a stable state. This provides you an opportunity to define what your scope is, whether it is written down or not. If you’ve been hoping to do something different, bigger (or smaller) because you believe that data product is the key to addressing key problems for the company, there is no better time to do this than in the midst of change.
The fourth step is to define the story of the data product investment that you want, assuming it goes beyond an MVP or requires months of effort. In the midst of a lot of organizational changes happening, everyone’s mind is overloaded with things. The best thing you can do is create a simple, compelling narrative about the power of the data product work you want to invest in. It might be similar to an elevator pitch in that it helps others grasp the value and impact of you spending your time on this improvement or change. The details aren’t as critical as the story, because the details are something that only you and the team working directly on the product will really need to know.
The fifth step is to be public about the data product. When there is lots of noise in an organization, accomplishments tend to get drowned out by organizational dynamics and shifts. People often are afraid to do their own PR for their work. Yet it is precisely in the chaos that the public story about value created becomes most valuable. You can assume that many others have done great work as well. Perhaps you combine this into a larger communication. Perhaps you have a show and tell about impactful products your team shipped. Just because there is noise with changes does not mean you making noise about your work is a bad idea. It might not be intuitive to add “more” to the news cycle, so to speak, but it can pay off in a big way for you and your team.
As I said above, there are many things I do not know. I don’t know if the approach above will work everywhere, or for your team. But the principles I’ve shared above can provide a building block for prioritization and visibility for your data product work, especially during times of change in an organization.