A few weeks ago, I attended a leadership event for a group of Bay Area veterans. Peter Levine, General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz, moderated the event, which featured General John Vines as guest speaker. Prior to his retirement, General Vines oversaw an organization of more than 160,000 troops, and was the only military general to have led combat operations in both Iran and Afghanistan post 9/11.
General Vines had a very interesting perspective on analytics and leadership. Leaders ultimately have to accept responsibility for decisions and will never have complete information. Vines frequently spent hours at a time meeting with analysts. "The analysts would prepare endless data to describe the 'what,' but what I really wanted was the 'so what,'" Vines said.
This is a very relevant analogy that describes the frustration with most implementations of enterprise performance management and business analytics software. Spreadsheets and legacy applications are adequate for communicating the "what," but they are extremely inadequate at communicating the "so what." As a leader on the front lines of a business, what am I supposed to do with a complex model with hundreds of "drivers" that supposedly describe my business? So what?
When the stakes are highest, effective military leaders go to great lengths to ensure that every soldier understands the “so what” - how their actions will affect the overall strategy. "Once the soldiers understood the strategy and the thinking behind the strategy, the orders almost followed themselves," Vine recounted.
Why, then, do so many companies believe that having a few financial analysts build complex models that no one else understands is an effective business performance management strategy? Companies that are intent on building a culture of performance are focusing their efforts on communicating the "so what" to decision makers at all levels of the organization.
In fact, much of the "so what" is found in the collaboration amongst teams and other unstructured content – context that's missing from most analytics applications. Empowering those on the front lines of your business with this context equips them to act. After all, models and plans only add value to the extent that they can be translated into action.
The consequences of failure in a military organization are more extreme than most of us will ever face in a business setting, yet, “there are more similarities than differences in business and warfare,” according to Vines. Are your current analytics pursuits making it easier for everyone in your company to understand the “so what?”