Thanks to Brent Dykes, there has been a lot of talk recently about ana­lyt­ics action heroes. Every­one wants to be a hero, and every­one thinks that they are one or on the road to being one. My work unfor­tu­nately has me often fac­ing the oppo­site; pro­grams that are not suc­ceed­ing, often due to vil­lains. One of the great truths is that the vil­lains never know that they are the vil­lains, often think­ing they are the real hero. They are con­stantly talk­ing about action, they are involved, and more then any­thing they speak up for the use of data in the orga­ni­za­tion. To be a real vil­lain, they have to be capa­ble and smart, just like a hero, oth­er­wise the dam­age they do would be mit­i­gated. The prob­lem is that they do it for all the wrong rea­sons and with­out the goal of actu­ally improv­ing per­for­mance. No one wants to be the vil­lain, but why then do they so out­num­ber the heroes in our industry?

So how then do you know if you are the vil­lain or the hero?

There is no mag­i­cal lit­mus test to get your hero card, but there are many com­mon traits that define the mem­bers of both groups. Here are a few barom­e­ters that might help you define where you are and what you need to work on to be whichever role you are try­ing to be.

Posi­tion –

There are heroes and vil­lains at every level. It is not always a HiPPO ver­sus the low man on the totem pole. Ana­lysts and mar­ket­ing man­agers are just as likely to run a pro­gram into the ground as VPs and CMOs. It isn’t about your title but about what the actions you take towards the pro­gram. Are you talk­ing about mak­ing a dif­fer­ence while choos­ing actions that make you look good? Or are you actu­ally doing the small things that aren’t looked at that really make a difference?

Heroes view their role as find­ing the best answer and doing what is needed to make the site suc­ceed. Heroes judge their posi­tion by what they do to make oth­ers bet­ter. Vil­lains view their roles as doing what their boss wants or what will make them look best. Vil­lains use the posi­tion to focus on them­selves. Heroes are inter­ested in ignor­ing their “title” to do what is needed. Vil­lains use their title to take credit for things and to keep things under their empire. Heroes know that there are many hur­dles, but they won’t accept excuses. Vil­lains are the first to com­plain about oth­ers, but then accept prob­lems as excuses and then spend a great deal of time remind­ing you why it is the other person’s fault. Heroes know that you don’t know the answer to every­thing and that dis­cov­ery is part of excel­lence. Vil­lains tell every­one they have the answer and then find data to sup­port their posi­tion and make them look bet­ter. Both sides talk about try­ing to do what is best, but the actions and the excuses deter­mine quickly which side of the bat­tle some­one falls on. Every­one claims to do what is best for the site, but actions speak louder than words, and if you are wor­ried about keep­ing peo­ple happy or doing only what you are told, then you are not doing what is best for the site.

Skills –

Heroes’ skills are in find­ing mul­ti­ple answers to prob­lems and fig­ur­ing out the effi­ciency and the value of each one. Their skills help edu­cate peo­ple about what defines a good answer. They are capa­ble of giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion, but they are at their best with chang­ing people’s mis­con­cep­tions and find­ing the best answer, not just the first one that comes up. They know that to be suc­cess­ful, they need to know a lit­tle bit about every­thing and they never accept “I don’t know” as an accept­able answer. They go beyond what is asked and never set­tle for “best prac­tices” or just return­ing a report. They know that just because their boss wants an answer to ques­tion A, that the com­pany might be bet­ter served find­ing the answers to the ques­tions that aren’t asked, so they focus their skills on find­ing those ques­tions and answer­ing them, even if that is not sup­port­ing someone’s agenda.

A vil­lains’ pri­mary use of their skill is directed towards self-promotion. They take every oppor­tu­nity to show how valu­able their “con­tri­bu­tions” over focus­ing on what real value of the actions taken. They view their job as improv­ing their “per­sonal brand” and are more than happy to find data to sup­port oth­ers claims or agenda, as opposed to find­ing the best answer. They are the first to dive in and find the answer to the ques­tions their bosses are ask­ing, even if that ques­tion has no real value. They blame oth­ers when they don’t know some­thing and they are more than happy to tell oth­ers it’s their job to “fig­ure it out”. They spend their time focus­ing on improv­ing their pre­sen­ta­tion skills, net­work­ing, and self-promotion skills. All they want is to find an answer to the requests before them to make the peo­ple above them happy. They find no rea­son to find more than one answer or to chal­lenge ideas, because the act of find­ing that answer makes oth­ers happy and helps them show their “value”.

Research/Community –

Heroes love to research and view the thoughts of oth­ers. They do not how­ever look at only one com­mu­nity or think that just because some­one gives a great pre­sen­ta­tion that they are cor­rect. They appre­ci­ate pop­u­lar­ity, but know that the more peo­ple read a blog or buy a book, the more likely the mate­r­ial is to be what peo­ple want to hear and not actu­ally valu­able con­tent. They don’t just accept a state­ment from any­one, espe­cially when it sounds like exactly what they want to hear. They view the world through a lens try­ing to find every­thing that can be fixed and what is wrong with the cur­rent process. They don’t make excuses about time to dive into mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines or to find the lat­est news. They know that the time used to find a bet­ter way to do things will make them have mul­ti­ples of that time avail­able later. They take the time to read and find the best and worst qual­ity mate­ri­als out there because they care about con­tent and know that sim­ple almost never equals right. They know that you need lots of dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on a prob­lem to under­stand it, and that there is no sin­gle answer to any prob­lem. They under­stand that today’s answers will prove to be wrong tomor­row, so they aren’t con­cerned with try­ing to prove them­selves right as much as they are in find­ing the next “best” answer. They search out new per­spec­tives and new peo­ple to con­tinue a search for improvement.

Vil­lains are also heav­ily involved in com­mu­ni­ties, in fact some of the most vocal and famous part of com­mu­ni­ties are vil­lains. They use research and com­mu­ni­ties to pro­mote their image and to tell the world how great they are. They find new ways to say the things that have already been said and view their self-worth and value as the act itself of mak­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion, not in the value of the con­tent shared. They love to build their own groups in those com­mu­ni­ties in order to have more peo­ple prop­a­gate what­ever myth they are sell­ing at the moment. They are also always search­ing for the next big thing in order to get ahead of it, tell the world how they mas­tered it, and also to move on from what they were doing before the real­ity of their fail­ure becomes evi­dent. They don’t research or use com­mu­nity to find what is wrong with what they are doing, but instead to val­i­date and pro­mote their own agenda. They try to find what they can from every piece of infor­ma­tion in order to make them­selves look bet­ter and to bring oth­ers under their polit­i­cal umbrella.

Tech­nol­ogy –

Heroes view tech­nol­ogy as a means to an ends, one that is often fool­ishly rushed into to meet someone’s agenda. There are great tech­nolo­gies out there, and no one would be able really achieve any­thing if it wasn’t for the great tech­nolo­gies in our indus­try, but they focus on get­ting things right, build­ing out the right dis­ci­plines, the infra­struc­ture, and not just learn­ing one way but the best way to lever­age any a tool to do a pre­dis­posed func­tion. They aren’t impressed with hav­ing 50 tools run­ning on your site, but instead with how many you have run­ning in a way to really improve things. They live by the creed, “You can fail with any prod­uct” so they focus on cre­at­ing the infra­struc­ture to make the prod­ucts they do have suc­ceed. they know that just being able to col­lect data does not mag­i­cally make it valu­able. In order to do this, they are aware of all the var­i­ous offer­ings on the mar­ket, but focus on the effi­ciency of each one. A hero is more inter­ested in how often things go wrong and how to make sure they don’t fall into that trap then wor­ry­ing about the lat­est great “suc­cess story”. They aren’t afraid to chal­lenge sales pitches and “experts” to find the best answer.

Vil­lains make their career on buy­ing and get­ting the lat­est tech­nolo­gies. They love to be able to promise the next great thing inter­nally and to “own” it to help them­selves look good. They don’t care about what the like­li­hood of suc­cess is, but instead what they can sell inter­nally about the “value” they are being promised. They rush to eval­u­ate and get as many new tech­nolo­gies and to stay “ahead” of the field. They aren’t inter­ested in build­ing an infra­struc­ture for suc­cess, but instead focus on what promises they can get to pro­mote them­selves inter­nally. They spend their time “evan­ge­liz­ing” and not get­ting bet­ter. When things don’t work, they move on to the next tech­nol­ogy or the newest indus­try buzz word and find some­one to take the blame. They don’t care about build­ing a suc­cess­ful pro­gram as much as they care about “inte­grat­ing” all these tech­nolo­gies and find­ing a story to show their boss.

There are hun­dreds of other com­par­isons you can make between heroes and vil­lains. The truth is that we are always hav­ing to bal­ance one side ver­sus the other. It may seem like a fine line between hero or vil­lain, but remem­ber that it is always up to you what actions you choose. Heroes know that you are forced to choose between doing those actions that make you look good and the ones that make an orga­ni­za­tion suc­cess­ful. Heroes accept the sac­ri­fices and don’t make excuses. Vil­lains con­vince them­selves that they are the same thing and that what they are doing in all cases makes the orga­ni­za­tion bet­ter. No orga­ni­za­tional struc­ture or men­tal evo­lu­tion of a pro­gram will make up for hav­ing vil­lains in your pro­gram. We all talk about doing the right things, but at the end of the day, it’s not the sto­ries your tell oth­ers or the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions that you make to your­self, but your actions that deter­mine which path you take.

The real ques­tion for you is, which do you want to be and if so, what are you doing to get there? All heroes have to go through a quest to earn their abil­i­ties, often with many hur­dles and defeats. They are often not imme­di­ately rewarded for their skills and mis­un­der­stood, but in the end, they emerge vic­to­ri­ous. There are always hur­dles before you and you are always going to be search­ing for a way to get past them.

When your story is told by oth­ers, are you the hero or the villain?