“I’ve tried this before, Laura,” she said in an exacerbated tone. “I’ve followed the best practices, focused on the WIIFM, communicated until my voice gave out. But eventually the inertia won. I’m only one person!”.
I get these kinds of phone calls and emails a lot. People that need a moment to vent or a life-raft to cling to. Data governance is not for the meek. It’s a long slog through corporate red tape and often very hesitant staff. It is a journey of 1,000 miles with no milestones, some seriously poor maps, rugged terrain, and really bad music. So, why do we do it? Because it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s also something that can accelerate the pace of insight when done correctly.
Advice abounds about what to focus on. I am also one of those pontificators. Out here standing firmly on my soapbox telling practitioners how to do it. My job is easy. Your job is hard. I know that because I’ve had it, more than once. There is a lot to do and it’s easy to get lost in the busyness and forget to focus on the one thing that gives this change effort its legs—WIIFM. “What’s in it for me” can sum up just about every interaction you will have with people outside of the core data team. It’s a rare person, from either the business or technology, that looks at data governance and says “Me! Pick Me!” with the enthusiasm of a third-grader. Usually, they stroll in late to the meeting. Give you about eight minutes before they interrupt you and then ask the question you knew was coming “What’s in it for me?” Let’s break that down a bit and see if we can use it to our advantage.
How can you possibly know what other people want when you don’t know what you want?
First, I’m going to give you some guidance that no one else will. Before you run out and start asking your stakeholders key questions or telling them what’s in it for them, I want you to know exactly what you’re willing to do. WIIFM can feel too one-sided to be truly successful. What if they tell you exactly what they need to support you, but you have no way of getting that done? You’ve now set an expectation you can’t meet. You should know what problems data governance can solve for your organization. You should know your aspirational goals; you should know what your DG scope is (and be laser-focused on that and nothing else). Where you want to stay flexible is how you get there. Think about it like a road trip, you know you want to go to Santa Rosa to see that crazy Blue Hole, you just don’t care how you get there. Car, bus, train, rickshaw; go east to west or vice versa. We talk about WIIFM like its alchemy; like there’s a magical moment where you tell them what’s in it for them, and all the stars align and success is yours. It doesn’t work that way. Communication, especially WIIFM, cannot be a one-way street. Focus the WIIFM on use cases you and your stakeholders share.
The Disney Way
As I write this, we are hours away from a trip to Disney World. Disney does a lot of things right (and several things maybe not as right, but that’s a different issue) and one of those things is the narrative arc. We hear about storytelling with data all the time. Most of us aren’t great communicators let alone storytellers. If novelty and emotional attachment create the stickiness of a topic, in an average conversation about data governance that’s not going to happen. Narrative arcs are common among the best stories, and they can be used to our advantage in data governance.
The Layers of a Narrative Arc
Set up: Setting the scene
Inciting Incident: Something happens that has to be reacted to
Rising Action: The actions are taken to address inciting incident
Climax: The resolution of the actions and incidents
Falling Action: Close out all characters and subplots (tie up loose ends)
Resolution: At the end of the book or story, everything should have a resolution
I can name several “inciting incidents” in data governance; we don’t lack drama. What other data function can claim $400 million in fines if they screw up? Jail time? There is a lot of material to work with, and while we love using basic scare tactics like these, without including the other pieces of the story arc, the only thing using fear as a motivator will do is create some short-term anxiety - probably for you. Tell the whole story. Help your stakeholders see their role, to see themselves as a main character in the narrative. Each of the answers to WIIFM should fit into this arc. Try it on the next person you need to gain support from.
Pete and Repeat
Statistics vary, but a recent article claimed that up to 75% of all change efforts fail. Guess what? Data governance is a change effort. The magic sauce is communication, WIIFM, and the narrative arc and repeating it. A lot. Manage this part of your data governance effort just like you would the data quality efforts. It’s not a one-and-done thing. You have to stay vigilant, automate where you can, and always be looking for new ways to improve.
When you’re out there talking to new stakeholders, I recommend you listen more than you talk. You should be prepared to tell them a great story, but also be prepared to listen and take notes. People like to be heard and it’s a rare thing these days to really feel seen and heard. The power of that is almost as good as a great story arc, use them together and you’re unstoppable. Keep in mind that winning people over is a process, like peeling an onion. The first thing they share with you may not be their biggest problem. Sometimes it’s because they don’t trust you yet, sometimes it's because they aren’t able to articulate it and you’re not contextually informed enough to ask the right questions. This is where data governance (and admittedly many other data projects) go astray. You are asking, they are answering but you’re both off just a beat from each other. That’s why champion programs are so beneficial. Leverage someone closer to them and/or the topic to help bridge the gap. Champion programs for data governance are like if data literacy and privacy-by-design had a baby and named it data governance champion programs. They focus on up-skilling resources and embedding champions to support the effort of spreading the love for data governance across the organization.
How to start
The thing you can’t articulate will be the thing that gets you in the end, and we struggle to articulate the value of data governance to the uninitiated. We are asking them to suspend disbelief that data governance can work. That it isn’t “boiling the ocean” or some other impossible task. Communicating data governance is a delicate dance. Underestimate it and you will find yourself in the same spot as our inciting incident character at the beginning of this post; “I’ve tried this before, Laura,” she said in an exacerbated tone. “I’ve followed the best practices, focused on the WIIFM, communicated until my voice gave out. But eventually the inertia won. I’m only one person!”.
Let’s break this down:
1/ Spend some time defining what you need data governance to be and do for your organization. Don’t worry too much about the how, just prepare to articulate the aspirations.
2/ Then write a story following a narrative arc. It can be something from your personal experience or perhaps one you’ve taken from research on the topic. Make it compulsively readable (or compelling when presented). Think the garbage scene in Toy Story 3, I’m still in therapy for that.
3/ Create a plan to repeat your story, gather use cases, and design a champion program. The real trick here is to have a great story and a plan to share it. Then repeat.
I joked with someone the other day that if I had known writing “Disrupting Data Governance” would mean that I would do nothing but data governance work for the next three years I probably wouldn’t have written it, but that’s not true. I wrote it for you, the practitioners. The ones out there fighting the good fight. The ones always pivoting to stay on top of a difficult and taxing topic. I see you. I hear you. Hang in there.
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