It’s well understood that the people, regardless of intelligence, generally fail to invest sufficiently in the future. But it’s important to understand the implications for business intelligence (BI) projects.
Deferred Rewards are Systematically Undervalued
It always feels like managers want things now that are uniquely important, and they are willing to commit only enough resources to future needs to avoid outright anxiety. (Note that this anxiety is experienced now, even though the future investments are to avoid an immediate pain.) BI, by driving better decisions across the organization, often has a hugely positive return on investment. But think of all of the steps that need to happen to realize that return. Let’s say you’re finally upgrading your databases. Once you allocate a budget, then you can make a purchase. Then comes the training. If the databases allow more data to be captured or stored, this additional data needs time to accumulate. Then you can begin to do analysis and influence an important decision. Then the impact of that decision will play out, probably over the course of months. Eventually, you will get to do another analysis, which ideally will show the benefit. That can easily be a year from when you made the painful decision to divert resources from things that felt important in the moment to these longer-term investments. But managers are not the only ones who are making irrationally shortsighted decisions.
Consider Don. When he’s not defending the kingdom, Don is in charge of BI for the King’s farms. The king knows that he needs to have Don around, because the last time that he went without an analytics expert, he had 300 cows stolen right out from under his nose. (Side note: this sort of thing actually happens) But the king would rather spend his money on portraits of himself, rather than spending more than the absolute minimum on BI. That means Don’s tools haven’t changed, even as the number of livestock and the size of the pastures grow. Don, for better or for worse, considers his mandate to “do more with less” a great honor instead of a burden. He knows that he is indispensable; he keeps a mental list of the king’s important decisions that he’s influenced. The drawback of his sunny outlook is that he is often too overburdened to do a truly excellent job.
For example, some of the other kingdoms have mastered the creation of leather-bound books, allowing them to store their tallies across years. This helps them see the trends and understand the impact of each new season much more precisely. Don can only look back a few weeks, or less if the rats in his room are hungry. Everybody would be better off if Don were able to take a week to go apprentice to a master bookbinder, but the fact that he is indispensable every single day prevents that. In a sense, Don’s desire to do a good job with what he’s given each and every day prevents him from doing a great job in the long run.
What Does it Mean for You?
All right, your data may not be getting eaten by rats, but you surely have a “gnawing” problem that you wish you could take some time to address. It’s a constant balance, even if you are on a multiple-person team. The answer can sometimes be found by taking a step back and working with your stakeholders to think about what needs to get done not just tomorrow, but one, six, 12 and 24 months from now. If you can paint a compelling vision of how amazing the world would be if you made certain investments, it becomes much easier to have conversations about the short-term “must-haves” that can be deferred or even dropped. It’s particularly compelling when you can point out how much things have changed since your current processes were put into place so many years ago. This helps underline the fact that the changes are not just for fun but a necessary reaction to an ever evolving world.
It’s unlikely that humanity will ever fully escape the traps that its own cognitive biases create. But by keeping Don’s story in mind, you can at least make some tiny portion of your world run that much more smoothly. Best of luck!