Data Driven Business

10 years ago
The Blank Stare

I’m guessing this has happened to you.

When I was Vice President of Database Marketing at Nordstrom, I reported to the Chief Marketing Officer. The CMO at a ten billion dollar a year business has a lot of responsibility, and a whopper of a budget to boot! We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars From a corporate standpoint, this was an important person, one that could genuinely do something with the analytical insights produced by my team.

I had a weekly “touch base” with my boss. She was one of the best I’ve ever worked with in both keeping this meeting on the schedule, and for paying attention to me when I was sitting in front of her. You have to understand, it’s not easy for non-analytics staff to sit across from an analytics person and have to digest every proprietary analytics acronym issued her direction during the course of an hour. There are only so many times a CMO can hear phrases like “heteroscedasticity” or “optimization” before wanting her administrative assistant to enter the office with a fake meeting request that she is allegedly required to attend, immediately.

But there’s a big difference between the blank stare that is initiated from boredom/indifference, and the other blank stare.

The other blank stare?

You know the one I am talking about.

It’s when you have a great idea, one backed up by data, and you make what you feel is an iron-clad case in defense of your idea.

Yes, that blank stare.

Now, I’ve given that blank stare to my analysts, thousands of times. There are probably hundreds of reasons why I did this. Here’s three of the most common reasons.

  1. The analyst presented an argument that is fundamentally flawed, but I cannot yet figure out why the argument is fundamentally flawed, so I am thinking very hard. This happens, a lot. You don’t want to crush the argument in real time, just in case the argument is right, which it sometimes is. But more often, you’re thinking rapidly in your head, trying to form a response to the hypothesis offered by the analyst.
  2. The analyst presents an argument that is reasonable, but I hate the idea. I once had an analyst argue that we should send chocolates to homes, in outgoing shipments, recommending that the chocolates be put on pillows in bedrooms. This was offered as a “nice touch” that would lead to “increased loyalty”. I mean, how much would this cost? Almost nothing. And yet, I just don’t think this is the right direction for our business. So as the argument winds down, I have nothing but a blank stare on my face.
  3. The analyst presents an argument that is reasonable, but politically, the idea has no chance of succeeding. Way back in 2002 at Nordstrom, I floated the idea of a mobile van that went door-to-door, providing same-day shipments in a test market. When presented to a roomful of peers (all VPs), I got ten blank stares.
  4. The last point is the most common one I run across. Analysts all over the world are offering ideas that result in blank stares. Empty, hollow blank stares. Often, the blank stares happen because the person sitting across from the analyst knows that there is almost no chance that, politically, the idea can be accepted and implemented.

    When this happens to you, the humble analyst, ask questions.

    • “You are quiet, why?”
    • “Do you like my idea?”
    • “How can we get my idea implemented within our culture?”
      • It’s better to find out why the idea isn’t being accepted, than to sit there trying to interpret a blank stare.

        And if you find out that your boss doesn’t think that your idea can be pushed through the culture, from a political standpoint, then find somebody in your company who may be able to help you. At Nordstrom, there were a lot of ideas that my boss didn’t like, but another Executive adored. So I evangelized, finding partners who could get my ideas through the culture. And when I exhausted those opportunities, I moved on to new ideas.

        The blank stare symbolizes a potential problem. Please ask questions, so that you can learn why your ideas are not being embraced by leadership.

        By: Kevin Hillstrom, President, MineThatData

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