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Thinking Fast and Slow for Data Executives

In this month’s Leading Female Data Executives livestream, our panelists share their tips and advice for how to balance short-term business needs with long-term goals when executing enterprise data strategies



Data-focused executives can learn a lot from Daniel Kahneman’s acclaimed book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

In it, the renowned psychologist draws a distinction between two modes of thinking. ‘System 1’ is fast, instinctive and emotional. It’s how we make snap judgements and urgent decisions. Meanwhile, ‘System 2’ is slower, more deliberative and logical. It’s how we identify issues in our short-term thinking and form rational long-term beliefs.

Dr Kahneman notes that some may conclude that System 2 is somehow the better of the two systems. But he argues that both play an important role in helping humans survive and flourish. And the same is true of short- and long-term goals for data and analytics strategies.

In this month’s Leading Female Data Executives livestream, three top executives outline why achieving the same balance between short-term and long-term planning is fundamental to executing data strategies effectively. Then, they share their tips and advice for achieving this balance.

Balancing Short-Term Needs with Long-Term Goals

Data-focused executives must often prioritize short-term projects to guide business decision-making in the short-term. These initiatives play a key role in helping enterprises respond optimally to emerging situations and demonstrate the value of data to stakeholders within a company.

But as Minna Kärhä, Data Strategy Lead at consultancy Solita, says, focusing exclusively on the short-term often doesn’t serve a business’ long-term interests. Data-focused executives must balance both types of initiatives to help their companies with 'thinking fast and slow’.

“At the same time, when you’re building those ‘fast value’ outcomes, you [must] also put effort and invest in building those long-term fundamental capabilities and making them strong,” she says.

Of course, the challenge for data-focused executives is they rarely have enough resources to meet all a business’ needs at once.

“For me, it’s about thinking about resources and prioritization, because you have multiple competing interests,” notes Besa Bauta PhD, Chief Data and Analytics Officer for the State of Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services. “What can you accomplish with the resources that you have?”

Nirali Patel, Director of Data and Analytics at BT-owned digital network company Openreach, agrees. She says making these decisions always involves a level of compromise, but recommends two techniques for maintaining a good balance.

“One of the tips I have is ringfencing,” she suggests. “When you’ve got the capacity within your team, you can ringfence a small [team] – we call them the ‘rapid reaction’ team – that can answer questions quickly. So, we’re still delivering value as we go along. And then we have ringfenced resources to do the bigger long-term projects.”

“The other option I’ve done is, I’ve split the week up for some people, as well,” she adds. “[So, they] spend three days a week doing one and two days a week doing the other.”

Fostering Problem-Solving Mindsets

In tandem with making these tough resource allocation decisions, data-focused executives must communicate how long specific projects will take to deliver to executives and ensuring their priorities are aligned with those of the business units they’re serving.

This month’s ‘leading female executives’ agree that the key to success here is to diagnose business problems correctly. Only then is it possible to design the optimal solutions for key business pain points.

“Obviously, you’re trying to address problems and issues,” Dr Bauta says. “So, you’re looking at, what processes don’t work? Is it a technology that doesn’t work? What are the barriers?”

She adds: “[It’s about] building teams or individuals that have active listening skills to understand what the frictions are within the business side that we need to address.”

“The core of the problem solving is first to really understand, what problem should you solve?” Kärhä agrees. “I also like to use design sprints and design thinking methods, because I think they really help to steer that thinking and discussions in the right direction.”

Patel adds that it’s not just data professionals who can benefit from adopting this kind of ‘problem-solving mindset’. At Openreach, she’s taking steps to educate business stakeholders who are too focused on short-term, tactical considerations about approaching problems more strategically.

She says: “What I’ve been doing with that group of people is to try and convert them and train them into the other group of people that I’ve got, which are saying, ‘Actually, is that really the business problem?’”

Finding the right balance of short-term and long-term projects will always be a challenge for data-focused executives. Business priorities are constantly evolving, and its rarely possible to do everything at once.

But through practicing active listening, communicating effectively and collaborating with business stakeholders to develop effective solutions to their problems, data leaders can help their colleagues make better decisions in the short-term while still working towards their long-term goals.