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