When Analytics Hits the Fan


By Ben Olsen, CEO, Analytics Guild

Immense political and technical complexity is so often the reality for analytics work that it's easy to feel like you're being set up for failure. Last year, I was sandwiched between VPs, Directors, PMs, and dozens of Developers and Architects with me as the “Solution Owner” of seven major analytics projects for a telecom company, and one of the projects came close to crushing me and my team. The project was in the red before I arrived on the scene, and it had enough dollar signs behind it for VPs to phone me directly at odd hours every day of the week asking for updates and assurances of success.

During some of these rainiest and bleakest of winter weeks, an odd thing started to happen to me. Even my Developer and Architect coworkers began noticing it after intense war room sessions: I would get visibly more animated, engaged, even jolly as the project reached new heights of terrible. One day a fight between a couple PMs with a VP in which blame was being batted around our entire team was dissolved when I spoke up boldly: “We are going to miss the milestone, and I take the blame for not getting us to that point. Our plan is going to work though; please let me explain.”

Did I reach Data Buddhahood? Maybe I was just delirious. I don’t deny it could be the latter, but only now can I articulate what happened to me during those months of extreme stress.

Developer and Architecture failures became my failures.

PM and TPM and every type of PM failures became my failures.

VP and Director failures became my failures.

Process failures became my failures.

And their wins also became my wins.

This wasn’t really an enlightened, conscious choice of mine from a philosophical perspective; it was in the job description: “Owner.” However, every hit, every bit of blame or ire I received from the ecosystem and those within it did offer me a concrete choice: own it, or give it to someone else. 

When faced with that choice, I began to see myself as a true owner and to have empathy for the positions of everyone around me. Those developers cranking through code at all hours of the day, they didn’t deserve the full burden of ownership. Same went for the myriad others around me; their positions didn’t warrant it.

But here’s the beautiful thing: my choice to truly own the work expanded outward to the broader team. We began working our way out of the red, into the yellow, and then the green—and just in time! Blame started to melt away from our mutual vocabularies. And in the end, all our failures were swept away by our giant win for the company. I didn’t understand it then, but I had begun to stumble my way into the principles of Extreme Ownership:

“The leader must own everything in his or her world. There is no one else to blame. The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of them, and develop a plan to win.”
—Jocko Willink & Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win

Every new analytics project is a chance to exercise this practice of ownership once again:

  • Take responsibility for leading everyone in your world—subordinates and superiors alike.
  • If someone isn’t doing what you want or need them to do, look in the mirror first and determine what you can do to better enable this.
  • Don’t ask your leader what you should do, tell them what you are going to do. 

Ownership is contagious, spreading among teams and projects, boosting morale, and uniting coworkers around problems and solutions. And it begins with your decision to own it all, own everything.