Change can strike fear into the hearts of any­one who has grown accus­tomed to doing things a cer­tain way, and this appre­hen­sion fre­quently results in resis­tance to new ideas. Ana­lyt­ics and opti­miza­tion efforts can run into this chal­lenge. Shift­ing a cor­po­rate cul­ture from its sub­jec­tive, intuition-driven approach to an objec­tive, data-driven approach can be a sig­nif­i­cant and daunt­ing chal­lenge for any com­pany. Many mar­ket­ing exec­u­tives and web ana­lyt­ics pro­fes­sion­als see the value of intro­duc­ing a data-driven trans­for­ma­tion at their com­pany, but quickly dis­cover how dif­fi­cult it can be to orchestrate.

Time to make the “Switch” to data-driven

After recently com­plet­ing a series of arti­cles on sev­eral keys to cre­at­ing a data-driven orga­ni­za­tion, I learned that authors Chip and Dan Heath had recently pub­lished their sec­ond book called “Switch”, which focuses on change man­age­ment (sub­ti­tle: “How to change things when change is hard”). Their first book, “Made to Stick”, which focuses on effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, was eas­ily one of my favorite busi­ness books of 2009. As I read through their new book, I decided to exam­ine how their con­cepts could be applied to some­one try­ing to intro­duce a data-driven cul­ture within a large organization.

“Switch” meets web governance

Before I get into the juicy bits, I need to describe a sim­ple, three-part frame­work or model that the authors lay out for change. It is based on a sim­ple anal­ogy of some­one rid­ing an ele­phant, where our emo­tional side is our Ele­phant and our ratio­nal side is our Rider. Each side has strengths and weak­nesses. The Elephant’s strengths are its energy and drive while its weak­nesses are its lazi­ness and ten­dency for imme­di­ate self-gratification. On the other hand, the Rider’s strengths are its long-term plan­ning and direc­tion while its weak­ness is wheel spin­ning or analy­sis paralysis.

Perched atop the Ele­phant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s con­trol is pre­car­i­ous because the Rider is so small rel­a­tive to the Ele­phant. Any­time the six-ton Ele­phant and the Rider dis­agree about which direc­tion to go, the Rider is going to lose.

A key point that the Heath broth­ers make is that if you want to change things, you need to appeal to both the Rider and the Ele­phant. If you reach your people’s Rid­ers but not their Ele­phants, peo­ple will have under­stand­ing with­out moti­va­tion. If the inverse hap­pens, you’ll have pas­sion with­out direc­tion. You may need to deter­mine which side is more dom­i­nant in the group of stake­hold­ers you’re try­ing to influ­ence, and then bring both sides to equi­lib­rium. Based on this Elephant-Rider anal­ogy, Chip and Dan Heath iden­ti­fied three key areas for dri­ving change:

  1. Direct the Rider: What looks like resis­tance is often a lack of clar­ity. With the vol­ume of web data and reports avail­able to mar­keters aside from han­dling all of their nor­mal respon­si­bil­i­ties, the Rid­ers may end up going in cir­cles with their Ele­phants. Peo­ple need crystal-clear direc­tion on what to do with the data. For exam­ple, help­ing peo­ple to focus on KPIs rather than ad hoc met­rics can be part of the clar­ity the Rid­ers need.
  2. Moti­vate the Ele­phant: What looks like lazi­ness is often exhaus­tion. Change can be hard and requires self-control from the Rider to con­stantly steer an unmo­ti­vated Ele­phant in the right direc­tion. Over time the Rider will exhaust the men­tal mus­cles required to deliver the desired change in behav­ior. Moti­vat­ing employ­ees’ Ele­phants to want to be data-driven becomes crit­i­cal. One approach for gen­er­at­ing more moti­va­tion from your Ele­phants is to pub­li­cize the data-driven suc­cesses that are already occur­ring within the orga­ni­za­tion. This approach gets peo­ple excited about find­ing the poten­tial data-driven oppor­tu­ni­ties within their role, team, or department.
  3. Shape the Path: What looks like a peo­ple prob­lem is often a sit­u­a­tion prob­lem. Rather than say­ing your mar­ket­ing peo­ple are dumb and don’t get web ana­lyt­ics, per­haps you need to eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tional aspects that may be pre­vent­ing your mar­keters from lever­ag­ing the web data like you’d like them to (e.g., train­ing, band­width, goals, etc.).

Tac­tics for “Switch­ing” your culture

Now that I’ve intro­duced some of the high-level con­cepts from their book, I can apply some of their prin­ci­ples to spe­cific tac­tics and ques­tions that com­pa­nies can con­sider as they strive to become more suc­cess­ful in their web gov­er­nance efforts.

Direct the Rider

  • Find the bright spots: The Rider in us typ­i­cally focuses on prob­lems rather than bright spots. The Heaths note how as par­ents we tend to focus on the one D or F on our child’s report card, and we put lit­tle empha­sis on their other A’s and B’s. We then imme­di­ately dive into fix­ing the prob­lem. If we are not as data-driven as we’d like to be as an orga­ni­za­tion, we instead need to ask “what’s work­ing well right now?” Is there an ana­lyst, an exec­u­tive, or an entire team that is being suc­cess­ful with the web data? How much of our time is spent focused on prob­lems as opposed to scal­ing data-driven suc­cesses? The great thing about pro­mot­ing home­grown bright spots is that it over­comes the issues of resis­tance to exter­nal solu­tions, which can be per­ceived as being “not invented here”.
  • Script the crit­i­cal moves: Chip and Dan Heath noted that exces­sive choices and ambi­gu­ity are exhaust­ing to the Rider as the Rider wres­tles the reins try­ing to lead the Ele­phant down a new but unclear path. The Ele­phant will always want to stick to the famil­iar path (sta­tus quo). Your orga­ni­za­tion will need more than just a vision for becom­ing more data-driven but also spe­cific details or actions. What are the spe­cific actions or behav­iors that indi­vid­u­als and teams can do to become more data-driven? What actions, processes, or other best prac­tices from the bright spots can be scripted for the rest of the orga­ni­za­tion? Maybe your com­pany needs to unify itself around a core set of KPIs and cus­tom reports. Maybe the menu struc­ture in Site­Cat­a­lyst needs to be cus­tomized for a spe­cific team to “script” which reports they need to use on a reg­u­lar basis to man­age their business.
  • Point to the des­ti­na­tion: The Rid­ers within your orga­ni­za­tion need to have a clear under­stand­ing of the des­ti­na­tion. What does it mean to be data-driven and why is it impor­tant to me? Our team? Our com­pany? The Heath broth­ers dis­cuss hav­ing a des­ti­na­tion post­card, which is a “vivid pic­ture from the near-term future that shows what could be pos­si­ble.” You need a vision that appeals to both the Rider (where are we head­ing?) and Ele­phant (why is the jour­ney worth­while?). A SMART goal is not a des­ti­na­tion post­card as it pre­sumes the emo­tion, but doesn’t actu­ally gen­er­ate it.

Moti­vate the Elephant

  • Find the feel­ing: Our ana­lyt­i­cal focus may blind us to the fact that change is not based on “ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE” but “SEE-FEEL-CHANGE”. If emo­tion moti­vates the Ele­phant to change, which feel­ing is going to move your company’s Ele­phants? Is it anger, hope, dis­may, fear, joy, or surprise?For exam­ple, the sur­prise gen­er­ated among team mem­bers about which cre­ative or web design per­forms best could be “the” feel­ing that ignites a change within your com­pany towards adopt­ing a more data-driven approach.
  • Shrink the change: Becom­ing a data-driven orga­ni­za­tion may seem insur­mount­able at times. Chip and Dan Heath sug­gest break­ing down the ulti­mate vic­tory into a series of small wins or mile­stones that are mean­ing­ful and within imme­di­ate reach. It’s impor­tant to make sure that advances are made vis­i­ble so that peo­ple can see they are mak­ing progress on the desired path. It may start as sim­ply as hav­ing peo­ple log­ging into Site­Cat­a­lyst once a week to review a key dash­board or a few cus­tom reports. “When you engi­neer early suc­cesses, what you’re really doing is engi­neer­ing hope. Hope is pre­cious to a change effort. It’s Ele­phant fuel.” As you pub­li­cize the quick wins your orga­ni­za­tion is expe­ri­enc­ing with ana­lyt­ics and opti­miza­tion, your data-driven trans­for­ma­tion will begin to build momentum.
  • Grow your peo­ple: Iden­ti­ties are cen­tral to decision-making so you need to cul­ti­vate a data-driven iden­tity (e.g., every­body is an ana­lyst). When approach­ing a deci­sion, peo­ple sub­con­sciously ask three iden­tity ques­tions: “Who am I? What kind of sit­u­a­tion is this? What would some­one like me do in this sit­u­a­tion?” How can a data-driven iden­tity trans­form your online mar­ket­ing team’s behav­iors? Rather than per­ceiv­ing analy­sis to be some­one else’s job, what if they thought of them­selves as ana­lysts, not just mar­keters? If they accepted such an iden­tity, it would have a dra­matic effect on the way they approached their day-to-day respon­si­bil­i­ties. Dan and Chip Heath also encour­age instill­ing a growth mind­set in your peo­ple because “every­thing can look like a fail­ure in the mid­dle.” A growth mind­set won’t let the Ele­phant give up on the jour­ney to becom­ing more data-driven. “Peo­ple will per­se­vere only if they per­ceive falling down as learn­ing rather than as fail­ing.”

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the envi­ron­ment: The book intro­duces the the­ory of Fun­da­men­tal Attri­bu­tion Error where we are inclined to “…attribute people’s behav­ior to the way they are rather than to the sit­u­a­tion they are in.” By tweak­ing the envi­ron­ment, we cre­ate an envi­ron­ment where the right behav­iors are eas­ier and the wrong behav­iors are harder. How can you make data-driven behav­iors eas­ier and gut-driven ones harder? Being data-driven might be eas­ier if your team has more ana­lyst resources, more band­width, more train­ing, more sup­port from senior man­age­ment, an updated imple­men­ta­tion, a clearer mea­sure­ment strat­egy, bet­ter inter­nal processes, etc. Not being data-driven can be harder when there are more account­abil­ity mea­sures in place.
  • Build habits: “When behav­ior is habit­ual, it’s free — it doesn’t tax the Rider.” You can encour­age habits via action trig­gers, where you decide before­hand to exe­cute a spe­cific action in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions. For exam­ple, as a mar­keter you could pre-load the deci­sion to always ana­lyze the pre­vi­ous campaign’s per­for­mance before launch­ing the next cam­paign. Dan and Chip Heath also empha­size how sim­ple check­lists can make behav­iors more con­sis­tent and habit­ual. “Check­lists edu­cate peo­ple about what’s best, show­ing them the iron­clad right way to do some­thing.” In what areas could check­lists help your orga­ni­za­tion to intro­duce and rein­force more data-driven habits? New site devel­op­ment, cam­paign launches, busi­ness require­ments gath­er­ing, post­mortem analy­ses, etc. might be some pos­si­ble areas that could ben­e­fit from checklists.
  • Rally the herd: “In ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tions, we all look to oth­ers for cues about how to behave.” You will want to pub­li­cize exam­ples of how teams are being suc­cess­ful with data as other slower-moving groups take cues from the herd. Dan and Chip Heath dis­cuss cre­at­ing “free spaces” or small-scale meet­ings where “reform­ers can gather and ready them­selves for col­lec­tive action with­out being observed by mem­bers of the dom­i­nant group.” In order to strengthen the data-driven move­ment within your com­pany, it will be impor­tant to build an inter­nal ana­lyt­ics com­mu­nity (a data-driven free space) through email aliases, wikis, inter­nal work­shops, reg­u­lar beginner/advanced user meet­ings, etc.

Chip and Dan Heath’s new book, “Switch”, is applic­a­ble to all forms of change — per­sonal, orga­ni­za­tional, soci­etal — not just web gov­er­nance. Hope­fully, shar­ing how their prin­ci­ples could be applied to cre­at­ing a data-driven cul­ture was help­ful. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear addi­tional ideas on how “Switch” prin­ci­ples could be applied to fos­ter­ing a data-driven cul­ture. If you’re look­ing for a good busi­ness book to read, I highly rec­om­mend “Switch” and I look for­ward to hear­ing your feed­back once you’ve read it.

Brent Dykes
Brent Dykes

Chris, I'll pass along your feedback to our web design team. Thanks, Brent

Brent Dykes
Brent Dykes

William, Thanks for your feedback. It was interesting to read the Heath's new book from a web analytics perspective. I'm glad you found it useful. Brent.


You guys might want to change your stylesheet: It's impossible to tell where the links are in the entry as they look identical to normal text. I was only able to tell because I had seen the post in Google Reader.

William Gaultier - e-storm
William Gaultier - e-storm

Brent, Thanks a bunch for this great and insightful post on Chip and Dan Heath's work. We encounter a LOT of these issues with our clients (large and medium size companies) and this summary of their work provides great ways to unlock people's minds, dissipate fear, and provide a path for constructive "analytics" conversations/actions. Thanks! William