More and more, organizations are on board with the idea of becoming “data-driven.” Collecting data on key indicators is a big step ahead from where many organizations used to be. But being able to interpret that data and share it with others in an intelligent way is equally as important and most organizations don’t focus here.

We’ve talked previously about how that data shapes the culture and conversations inside your organization. We (Gavin and Stephanie) were clarifying our thinking on this topic recently, in between data visualization workshops for Verizon.

What we first noticed, as we’ve seen in many organizations, is that there’s almost TOO MUCH data. The rush to be data-driven didn’t come with a handy interpretation guide. So they ended up with slides full of tables with text so tiny it wasn’t legible. They were producing slides like this (totally not real data at all):

Slide1 (1)

Geoff Walls, VP, Product Marketing and Communications at Verizon, put it this way:

“Our challenge at Verizon is that we’ve got more data and more information on what’s going on, or investments we’re making, or customer purchase patterns. Ultimately we have to take all that data and synthesize it into something that we can make decisions on.”

Everyone who looked at the slides, including those who made them, had trouble distinguishing the important stuff – the signal from the noise. And as a result, Verizon was wasting time and money.

“It was a struggle and always required rounds and rounds of interaction in the business with the folks that have the data in hands, to come to conclusions via the data they were sharing.” Geoff disclosed.

Many businesses are producing spreadsheets that track every movement in the company, but management often lacks the ability to interpret the data and present it in a way that supports actionable decision-making. They lack intentional reporting. There are different reasons for this difficulty with numbers. Sometimes it’s part of the culture to try to impress people with numbers. Sometimes it’s not wise to be the bearer of bad news, or lacking the courage to do so, and sometimes it’s simply not knowing how to tell a story with your data.  Clear data visualization supports truth-telling. It helps decision-makers connect dots, engage in precise discussion, and make straightforward decisions. And that’s where culture is sculpted.

We didn’t radically overhaul anything for Verizon. We took them through the Presenting Data workshop and gave them basic tools to find insights in their data and present them effectively. We added simple visualizations to their tables of numbers. Things like sparklines to visualize their quarterly reporting. Bullet graphs to show how close they are to their target. And, where possible, we encouraged them to ditch tables in favor of line graphs and bar graphs. Nothing too radical:

Slide2 (2)

What happened? Following one Presenting Data workshop, these baby steps toward better visualization were tested. It was good news and bad news.

One of the managers told us, “Our feedback on the weekly call was [Geoff, the boss] liked the new charts.  He didn’t like what they said (because we are going down) but he liked that they identified the issue clearly.”

In other words, he was excited, not that the data pointed in the wrong direction, but the graphs clearly showed performance. Geoff could anticipate results and take immediate action.

Geoff reports, “We’re starting to see better decisions, more clarity, less top down, more true interaction between the levels of the organization which is critical for our team culture.”

Data visualization and intentional reporting are two of the most important tools to shape organizational culture.

This cross-post is part of a collaboration on the intersection of Data Visualization and Culture by Gavin McMahon and Stephanie Evergreen. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Stephanie is a worldwide data presentation consultant and author of Presenting Data Effectively. She blogs at You can follow her on twitter @evergreendata.

Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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