New Year, New You?
Welcome to January 2021. The beginning of the year is a time full of optimism where both people and companies look forward to the endless possibilities of the future and set their goals for improvement. A common goal among many people is to lose weight, reasoning that they’ve over-indulged over the holidays and/or have been planning to drop that ‘spare tire’ for years now. It’s an admirable goal, but one that people consistently struggle with and mostly fail at. I know, because I was one of those people that was unsuccessful at weight loss for years.
I used to complain that the gym was too crowded, it was difficult to fit into my travel schedule or I didn’t have time to go. I couldn’t run because it would be too hot or too cold or raining. Listening to my excuses, my wife and I decided that the main problem was that we needed more convenience which would be solved by a better tool. In January of 2010 we made a resolution that both of us would lose weight and invested $2,000 in an elliptical trainer. Unfortunately, like 80% of people every year, we used it initially, dropped a few pounds, eventually lost interest over the next three months and re-gained the weight. Why did we fail? We had an amazing piece of technology with various workouts available that could be customized to suit a variety of goals. The sales rep showed us how it could not only address weight loss, but also increased cardio-vascular health and provide strength training. What was wrong with this tool? It wasn’t the tool, it was that we stopped using it. Therein lies the rub… the biggest problem with exercise machines is that they can do just about everything except make you get on them.
This not just true when addressing exercise. Companies also love to spend money on technology to solve their problems. I’ve spent 20+ years as a consultant implementing financial software and seen millions of dollars invested in building/implementing sophisticated analytics models that identify a 5-10X ROI for the project. Unfortunately, more than 50% of projects fail and/or don’t return any ROI. Based upon my experience, there’s a common thread among the majority of clients that don’t realize the value from these software tools … they fail because the company doesn’t use the results.
It’s been ten years since my unsuccessful elliptical trainer experiment and you may be wondering where I am now. In 2017 I took a different approach to my health and I have kept about 35 pounds off since then and greatly improved my overall fitness. What changed? I realized that I needed to apply what I had seen in business to my health. Specifically, to not just look at the equipment, but understand all the supporting factors associated with it to achieve and sustain results. I’ve found that there are many commonalities between living a healthy lifestyle and receiving value from analytics. Here are some of my findings:
Software = Exercise Equipment
As I alluded to earlier, equipment isn’t the key to being successful, but it can make a difference over time. I started out with very good and expensive equipment, but I didn’t succeed for two reasons. First, I did not have a clearly defined path on how to use the equipment to achieve my goals. Second, I didn’t need a sophisticated device with many features at that point in my fitness journey. Now I primarily use dumbbells to build muscle during high intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts. I supplement this with the elliptical since I have it and it’s easier on my joints than running. Similarly, the path that I would recommend for most companies is to start out with a simple spreadsheet for their initial pass at analytics. Verify that there is value to be had from that approach and then reach out to a specialty vendor. They can be a huge help by proving toolsets (ETL, prebuilt calculations/KPI’s, reporting, multi-user access, etc.) and expertise that will help you along your analytics journey.
Diet = Data
Regardless of your fitness goals, once you’re more than 25 years old it becomes increasingly difficult to exercise away too many calories or overcome a diet heavily composed of alcohol, sugar and fat. “Garbage in equals garbage out” is true for both reporting and your health. How do you get this right? For the diet portion, I worked with a nutritionist to help understand what food would have the greatest impact on weight loss and changed my eating habits accordingly. In many instances, I had good food, but was eating too much. In other cases, I removed certain items (ex. ice cream) from my weekly purchases and started substituting in healthier snacking options to appease my sweet tooth (ex. fruits, yogurt). Don’t get me wrong, this took some time and I haven’t completely given up alcohol or sugar, but I have decreased my intake significantly. A diet should be something you can maintain, otherwise it’s not sustainable.
From a data perspective, you first need to determine what data you need and flag anything that will have the greatest impact on any analytics model you build. Then consult with your IT staff and research what information is available. Be willing to accept that you won’t have everything you need at first as nobody ever does. However, most companies have 70%+ which is enough to make ‘directionally correct’ decisions. The key is to make sure that the data you’re using is accurate. Incorporate time into the process to review excessive or anomalous results (ex. disproportionate gross margin) with IT. If they can’t explain it, then reach out to the source providers if the data still seems wrong. After you have all the data that is available, then identify what gaps in data will cause the biggest objections to user consumption and find a way to capture them. In some instances, it may make sense to use manually obtained data first. That can go a long way toward getting a positive reception and use from the consumers, which is ultimately the goal.
Tracking = Reporting
Once you have the workout plan and diet in place, it’s crucial to monitor your progress to see if you’re improving. For that, you need to determine the appropriate metrics and report on them regularly. For tracking my weight, I used an Excel spreadsheet and recorded my weight and body fat three times per week. It’s worth investing in a scale that can measure body fat as people may notice that they’re gaining weight as they begin to exercise and erroneously think they are failing. Exercise will cause the body to gain muscle and muscle weighs more than fat. Having more muscle mass allows people to burn more calories, so it’s not a bad thing to see weight gain per se. I recommend that you measure yourself at approximately the same time of day during the week as body weight will fluctuate over the course of the day.
I also track how frequently I’m attending classes, what weight the dumbbells are for each exercise, how many reps completed, and the time needed to run specific distances. The key with these metrics is to make sure that there is steady improvement and the trend line is consistent. For example, I’ve had weeks where I haven’t lost body fat, but I did increase the amount of weight I lifted which allows me to still feel positive about my progress.
The same principals should be applied toward analytics. For example, I have built pricing analytic models that identify opportunities for revenue improvement. Like weight, revenue and costs will fluctuate due to market conditions. Therefore, work with your users to get agreement that the timeframe and metrics are appropriate for them to be measured against. Comparing year over year revenue from 2019 to 2020 would not be an accurate measure for most companies (ex. restaurant distributor), so month over month would probably be more appropriate for 2020. Next, you need to illustrate that improvement is possible and sustainable.
Select a pilot group of users, a reasonable period for improvement and a handful of tasks to show the value of the data. For example, sales reps from the western region will focus on a 10% price increase on produce across the institutional business over the next six months. You can then use the success of that campaign to identify other opportunities to use your analytics. There may be instances where the increase wasn’t as high as the target number, but if there wasn’t regression that should also be considered a success.
Workout Plan & Expectations = Change Management
Once the infrastructure is in place, you need to set realistic expectations about what can be accomplished during a specific timeframe, schedule a routine for your exercise and establish rewards for hitting milestones. Managing expectations is key. Attempting to lose 20 pounds for most people should take three to four months, not one. A reasonable weight loss goal is four to eight pounds per month. Amounts greater than in a short timeframe typically result in the loss of water weight and/or muscle which is not healthy. There are exceptions to this, but people set themselves up for disappointment if they expect too much too soon.
Now that you have your goal and timeline in place, setting up a routine is the next key step. Your routine may require some trial and error. Though I prefer to work out in the afternoon, I found that work and social activities would typically interfere with exercise at that time of the day. As such, I scheduled my workouts at 6:30 a.m. to avoid those obstacles. It wasn’t easy initially, but eventually it became a habit and I now typically wake up before my alarm. Finally, I have rewards in place (ex. cheat meal of Tex-Mex) for when I don’t miss a workout for a month. Rewarded behavior is repeated behavior, so put incentives in place to ensure that repetition.
Similarly, rolling out analytics and setting ROI goals based upon the use of them needs to be done with realistic expectations over time, a routine with rewards. The major difference being that analytics aren’t solely consumed by one person. Rather, acceptance and usage are required from other departments (ex. sales and pricing personnel for revenue enhancement) to see improvement. As such, find allies in those departments that are open to change and willing to contribute to defining and building the analytics. There is a significantly higher chance for positive results if you have people in those departments vouching for the validity of the information. Once you have identified those people, work with them to determine what practical goals can be achieved within a three to six month period.
I’ve learned that the team should be conservative with their goals initially, as quick wins will help to get buy-in from users and support from management. It also helps to put social (ex. employee of the month) or financial incentives (ex. quarterly bonus) in place for the end-users to help accomplish these goals. Solicit advice from the executives and team members that will be working with you to determine what will drive compliance with the behavior you’re seeking. Finally, recognize that slow progress is still progress. For example, while some reps may not be raising prices, it’s useful to identify those that are no longer willing to lower prices either.
Personal Trainer = Customer Success Manager
Two of the big benefits of doing cross-fit for me is that there’s both accountability and encouragement from my trainer. My trainer has her own set of reports to verify that we’re seeing improvement and will text/call me if I am absent from workouts. She also stays on top of the latest fitness trends and changes up the exercises to prevent me from plateauing, so that I continue to see gains in performance and/or weight loss.
Customer success departments in software companies are very similar to this and I strongly recommend choosing a software company that provides this service. Many Customer Success Managers (CSM’s) are incentivized on client retention and client success is the best path to that end. As such, CSM’s meet with users on a regular basis to demonstrate new product features, review metrics to make sure goals are being met, share industry best practices and identify new opportunities/areas for improvement. Also, having someone outside of your organization is helpful in providing a more objective viewpoint as they are not influenced by internal politics.
In summary, equipment is just the first step in these undertakings. While each process is challenging, the end results are worth the effort. I hope that these analogies are helpful to anyone pursuing either of these objectives now or in the future. As such, let me end on one final analogy – both endeavors are journeys, not destinations, as they will continue to provide value over time, not just once you’ve hit a single goal. I wish you all success in your journey.
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