Dmitry asks:

I face an issue that has nothing to do with Excel itself: human resistance. I showed a dashboard to my manager and he answered to me that my dashboard is too difficult for him and for top management and insisted to use simple XL-tables with lots of data. I’m a bit confused, why such innovative approach is not accepted by the management? Have you faced with such issues in your professional life?

I know how you feel, and I’m sure many readers do, too. It’s not about the dashboard,  its about change. Everyone resists to change. Often change threatens our believes or, more selfishly, our status and lifestyle. It is a complex issue, and there are no simple and actionable answers. Let’s see what can go wrong.

The Pygmalion Syndrome

If people resist changes you are promoting, you may need to look in the mirror and yourself “what am I doing wrong?”. This one is hard to swallow, I know. You spend weeks or months working hard and you fall in love with your creation. Then nothing happens. People fail to realize how beautiful the creature is.

Breaking news: they actually couldn’t care less. Let me be brutally honest: if you are an Excel expert, chances are you are at the bottom of the food chain and you know much less about the business than you think you know.

What you should do:

  • Ask the right people the right questions;
  • Study internal presentations and find how people look at the data;
  • If you are using charts and other people are using tables, you should find patterns they overlooked (if you don’t, try harder);
  • Come up with a vision and share it; show how a dashboard improves current processes;
  • Make a draft and ask for feedback;
  • Make sure you know the difference between what users say they need and what they really need;
  • Find common needs and translate them into a dashboard that improves what they already have and gives them something more (don’t promise the moon);
  • Work with the users, make sure you deliver what they need but, at the end of the day, it’s your dashboard, not theirs (you’re the expert, and you’ll be harshly reminded of that case something goes wrong).

You are allowed to fall in love with your creature if, and only if, you understand that the creature is the whole process, not the worksheet.

Inertia vs. Innovation

We often have to manage more than we can handle. We can offload some of the burden by delegating and/or by switching to auto-mode. Routines are great time and energy savers but also inertia-inducers. Sure, many users are open to innovation, provided they don’t have to move their asses off the couch. Don’t underestimate inertia.

To overcome inertia, you need at least an initial force. If you can’t sell the benefits of your dashboard the users will not move an inch.

Many users fail to understand that a better chart is much more than a design thing, a prettified chart with no inherent added value. That’s why you must teach them. A before/after comparison can be very useful, but it must be a guided discovery:

  • If they are using tables, show them how they can process much more data using charts;
  • If they are using Excel chart defaults and 3D charts, show them how simple formatting changes can help them get insights faster;
  • If they are using a single chart, show them how multiple charts (small multiples, dashboards…) can improve their analysis;
  • If they are using static charts, show them how they can take advantage of their business knowledge to explore the data dynamically.

Always remember: if they have no compelling reason to move, they will always find a perfectly acceptable reason to keep things as they are. Provide a clear path, and make sure nothing important is left behind.

Office Politics

Well, you can’t avoid it, can you? Office politics (all kinds of politics, actually…) have a deservedly bad reputation, usually because of some rotten apples.

If you are un obscure geek with a great idea you are doomed. If a product manager that knows how to grow her connections has the same idea, then she will probably succeed whereas the poor geek doesn’t even know where to begin…

If your network is weak, you should plan way ahead. Remember: most people don’t even know that charts and dashboard can actually be useful, and not just a (hopefully) pretty way to illustrate some numbers. So, you should start raising awareness and curiosity.

Target some standard reports that could be vastly improved and create alternative designs (Excel is a great prototyping tool). Tell users something like this: “Try to forget everything you know about the market and tell me what you can learn from [current report]. Now, let’s try again: what can you learn from [your design]?”. You’ll get great feedback and win people’s attention.

Find a sponsor. Share your vision and focus your message on the benefits for the organization. Quantify them, if possible. Avoid technicalities, no one cares.

Charts Are Not Serious Enough

Many managers believe that charts belong to PowerPoint presentations (there are many misconceptions about charts), and they will not use them for a more serious work. Hard figures with lots of decimal places feel a lot more credible, and who can blame them after three hours of flying pie charts?

Let me reiterate this: descriptive statistics, tables and charts are examples of tools we use to make sense of our data. They all have their strengths and they should all be taken seriously.You don’t miscalculate an average and you don’t design a misaligned table just for fun. Applying a 3D effect (or anything else) that hides or destroys a pattern in a chart do not add credibility and trust. You may get the eyeballs, but the brain is somewhere else.

They Are Not Visual

Old-school managers like tables and it’s hard to change the way they approach the decision making process. And there are non-visual people. People that love numbers, sound, motion, whatever. You can’t force charts upon them. But you can use a table.

Designing a good table is a lost art. Learn again how to sort rows and tables, how to label them, how to add meaningful calculations. And even if a table is the primary object in your report, you can always add graphical objects to help the reader. Design a table-on-steroids with sparklines, conditional formatting and links.

Change is Slow

Changing other people’s behavior is a slow and hard process. They’ll keep falling back into the old routines, even if they agree that the new ones are better. Make sure people understand the benefits and keep asking and giving feedback. If they don’t feel threatened change happens much faster.

I’m not a sales person, and trying to sell something is clearly outside my comfort zone, but I recognize that, at the end of the day, what really matters is not the product itself but how people’s lives are improved by the product. And you have to tell them…

So, what do you think? How do you create a market for your dashboard? What should Dmitry do?