How the Data Scientist Should Navigate Office Politics

Have you ever found yourself trying to convince a group of people to become more data driven and meeting a LOT of resistance?

First, understand that this is normal.  Second, understand that there are things you can do about it. This resistance exists because of factors at the personal and the organizational levels. People have existing plans based on their own assumptions.  People, including you and me, make decisions on incomplete information.  Without complete information, assumptions creep into our decisions.  This means that as you, the analyst, help people make decisions on empirical data, you may be disrupting plans based on faulty assumptions. Not a good career move. 

Resistance also exists at the organizational level. Hierarchy and division of labor work to solve business problems in the most efficient way - with as few individuals as possible with the appropriate skills.  This means everyone in an organization has different concerns with access to different resources.  This naturally creates conflict, but this conflict actually ensures higher quality, efficiency, and different viewpoints being considered. The problem is that you, the data scientist or analyst, are responsible for bringing new insight into a decision-making process that is designed to create conflict.

If you are starting out in an organization that has never used analytics or business intelligence, you will meet resistance. What do you do about it?

First, get to know people.  You may have a boss that controls information. If so, try to understand your boss's behavioral type (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or DISC is effective here).  Develop a plan on how to talk with your boss. Next, try to understand your boss's customers in order to better understand your boss's concerns.  Build trust by adopting your boss's concerns.  Eventually, you should be trusted enough to speak to people outside your office without your boss being present.  Repeat this two-step process with everyone you meet.

Second, get to know the CEO's vision. You may be lucky to work in an organization where everyone understands the vision.  This is called a shared vision. Most of us are not that lucky and, again, people with different roles and responsibilities interpret the vision differently. As you gain understanding in how this vision is interpreted in its various ways.  You will be able to understand what data is important to any given business problem. You will be able to add reasoning to your reporting and discussions. You will be able to stay focused on fulfilling that vision and gain allies.

Recommended reading: If you want to know more I recommend Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power.  This book explains office politics from the viewpoint that politics is just reality. Politics is nothing more than people trying to work together through existing social norms. Pfeffer does a wonderful job at bringing a nebulous topic down to real-world, concrete examples with corresponding real-world, concrete advise.

Good luck

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