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Actionable Insights

Why Dashboards Fail - 9 Warning Signs of Trouble Ahead

Jul 12, 2018 4:36:22 PM / by Adam Nathan

CEO Dashboard Failure and Frustrations - 9 Warning Signs

 Twenty Years of Watching Dashboards Fail

It may help to start with what a CEO dashboard - or any other dashboard for that matter - is not. Twenty years of working on dashboard initiatives has revealed a pattern of early warning signs that can be addressed - but first need to be recognized.

Have your dashboard initiatives had any of the following 9 characteristics? 

Your Dashboard Has No Structured Connection to Business Action

Your data may reveal engrossing “stories,” but they don't generate specific decisions or conversations. The more data that is visible on a dashboard (or report or Excel spreadsheet), the greater the chance there is no connection to a specific action.

Dashboards are not data exploration tools, they are tools to monitor and take action.


Your Dashboard's Ambitions Are Too Broad

Unfortunately, the wider the scope of potential questions to cover, the more sophisticated and extensive the supporting data sets need to be. Most enterprises don’t have the breadth or data quality to provide the “365 degree” view of an entire enterprise at a level that provides meaningful insight.

The resulting data can become almost trivially shallow and pointless for a chief executive.


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Your Dashboard Is Intended to Serve Ad-Hoc Queries

Dashboards in general are poor open-ended query environments, and they are even worse when intended to explore the entire enterprise. Dashboard visualizations should be built for a pre-structured set of questions - not an interactive search based on iterative analysis. It is not an analytical tool - and will fail when it tries to be. This mistake is usually evidenced in dashboards overloaded with filters to slice and manipulate information.

From an IT perspective, the broad ability to query looks like a feature. From an executive point-of-view it is a liability.


Your Dashboard Is Targeted for an Analyst, Not a CEO

Generally speaking, executives aren’t analysts by disposition or skill. They rarely have time to explore and interact with data. Even when inclined to explore data, it probably isn't the best use of their time.

If your CEO already asks for information in summarized form elsewhere - e.g. the executive summary - there is little chance an analytical framework will help them. It's not how they approach information.


Your Data Is Stagnant

Your data is stagnant. When the latency of data changes too infrequently, the habit of interaction with the dashboard won't "take." For example, static financial data that updates quarterly doesn’t belong on a dashboard. It belongs on a quarterly report - and it may not be appropriately targeted for a CEO in the first place.


Autopsy Data - Your Dashboard Is a Rear-View Mirror 

Dashboards that are heavily weighted towards historical financials rarely provide actionable insights into critical decision making for the future. What has happened is usually less powerful than why are things happening and where to focus next.

Financial outcomes are narratively gripping - but far less likely to create a future impact.


Your Dashboard Functionality Is Designed by IT

Dashboards fulfilled by IT without business input are almost guaranteed to fail. When IT "knows what the business needs," and they often insist they do, their attempts to structure meaningful - and actionable - information are doomed from the start. Even a few targeted questions shaped by the business will be more likely to create value.

While IT generally knows the data better than the business, they don't know the business better than the business. The best way to help your IT team understand what they don't understand is to ask them how the business should respond to the information.

IT may know the data, but they don't generally know what to do about it. This is a tell-tale clue that the data IT is including is historical rather than actionable, investigative rather than actionable.


Your Dashboard Was Created from a CEO's Back-of-Envelope Wish List

Too often a CEO's list of desired metric is a response to the historical problem, to areas where an executive was previously blindsided or has no visibility into an emerging problem. The requirements are often generated with little thought or in a quick exploratory meeting. Little time is spent because the target metrics appear self-evident to the executive.

These back-of-envelope collections of metrics often focus on hindsight questions. They rarely address forward-facing strategic imperatives - because the latter aren't intuitive and take deeper investigation. Unfortunately, true "vital sign" KPIs require thoughtful inquiry to identify.

"I'll make a list of what I need and send it to you," is a warning shot across the bow.


Your Dashboard Is Cluttered and Overwhelming

To show everything is to show nothing. The more complicated the visualization, the more time it takes an individual to learn to navigate it. The designer of the interface may understand its layout, but the potential versatility and value of the data are offset by user overwhelm.

Most users will never make this initial hurdle. They just won't use it because it's intimidating - and it can be difficult to admit this. This is true even if everything they asked for is where they asked for it. The ability to view data from a multitude of perspectives can be confused for the ability to answer one strategic question clearly.

At the end of the day, your CEO doesn't need a database navigation tool; they need simple, digestible and actionable insight.

To learn more about how to make your dashboard development a win for the business, read our Definitive Guide to CEO Dashboards.

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Topics: KPI, Dashboard

Adam Nathan

Written by Adam Nathan

Adam has been called "the John Ive of business simplification." He brings twenty years of experience helping business and non-profit leaders drive value with actionable insights. As a long-time business owner and CEO himself, he understands that creating value from information is never a given and that creating a data driven culture is a learned skill.

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