Five Rules for Growing Data at your Organization


Despite the 5 inches of snow that just fell on the Chicago area, spring is technically here, which means that warmer weather is hopefully just around the corner.  And with that comes my annual gardening dilemma.   To grow or not to grow - that is the annual question.  

It all started one summer when I decided to grow a garden.  I only had one problem - no space to actually grow a garden.  Too much of our backyard was covered in shade and there was too little backyard to start with.  However, any of you that know me know that a tiny issue like that isn't going to be enough to deter me.

So for my first attempt (yes, this a multi-year gardening saga), I decided to be reasonable and start with some large pots that could sit on a concrete patch that gets plenty of sun.  I planted a few smaller items like strawberries, herbs, and tomatoes.  I was excited when they started to grow.  Apparently so was the local wildlife who ate the majority of the plants.  Not to be outdone, I decided to try to save what was left and move the plants on top of a table.  That seemed to be working really well andI even had a few strawberries that started to grow and was looking forward to my minuscule harvest.  Unfortunately so was a squirrel (my best guess) and I ended up with nothing but some pots full of soil.

Fast forward to summer #2.  This year, I was getting serious.  I built some cages made out of PVC pipe and bird netting that would keep rabbits, squirrels, birds, etc. out.  I upgraded to self-watering planter boxes that were on wheels so that I could better take advantage of a some sunny days and move them out of the way when I actually wanted to use the patio.  And since I was going so full-force, I decided to expand my plant selection and added lettuce, melons, and other fruits and vegetables.  I definitely had better success than the year before.  All of my plants started to grow and were safe from the animals.  I lost some in expected ways (bugs) and some in unexpected ways (my dog's enthusiasm to be near me when we're outside lead to some heartbreaking moments when many of my melons were crushed under the weight of his paws).  I was able to pick a few items here or there, but admittedly was not nearly as attentive as I should have been since I was also in the process of training for my first marathon along with a full-time job.  And the worst part is that I was out of town when some of my best chances for a decent harvest happened.  So, I beat the wildlife this year, but in the end, really didn't come out much better than the year before.

On to summer #3...  I still had all of my pots, boxes, cages, and contraptions from the previous of two years of gardening warfare.  So what did I do?  I took one planter box and one cage and planted one plant - cilantro.  It was easy to tend to and grew well.  And it wasn't susceptible to squirrels or bugs or my dog's enormous paws.  I tended to it much more frequently, which wasn't really too much work since it was only one plant.  So what was the result?  Fresh cilantro all summer and fall long.  My tacos have never tasted so good.

So you may be asking what the heck this has to do with data and this website?  Well, a lot as it turns out. Here are my Top 5 rules for growing the use of data at your organization as it relates to gardening.

  1.  Expect challenges.  Each time I overcame one challenge in gardening, it seemed like another one popped up.  Working with data is a little like that, but just like gardening, the more that I've worked with it, the more that I've learned to refine my techniques. Data, just like plants, might seem to be easier to deal with than people, but both have a life of their own.  Just because numbers can't talk back doesn't mean that they will tell you what you want to hear.  
  2. The animals can drive you crazy.  So maybe it's not smart to call your co-workers "animals," but it's accurate with this analogy.  Just like you might think that gardening is about plants and data is all about numbers, neither live in a vacuum.   People will be scared, angry, confused, doubtful, defensive, and even apathetic in regards to any form of measurement - all of which puts the use of data in danger.  It's important to be aware of this and account for it if you want to have a successful data program.
  3. Cool tools help, but only so much.  Those planter boxes helped me grow more varieties of plants and also led to a better harvest, but ultimately, if you're not there to tend to the plants (or the data) and make time to use it when it becomes available to you, it really does you no good.  There are some great tools to help make data collection, viewing, and analysis easier, but if you're not going to put yourself in a place to use it, you shouldn't waste the time and effort.   
  4. More varieties = more results (and more work).  If you want to get a fuller view of what is going on at your organization, it's important to have a well-rounded and well-thought out approach to data collection.  But with every piece of data that you collect (just like with every plant you decide to grow), you have work to do in monitoring, gathering, preparing, viewing, analyzing, and using.  It's easy to get excited at the beginning of the process and bite off a bit more than you can chew (like I did in summer #2).  If you want a full garden, it's possible, but just realize that you can't plant it and let it grow on its own and hope it turns into something usable.  You'll need to do a lot of work along the way, but the rewards are definitely worth it.
  5. Sometimes you only need to do one thing really well.  Normally, I'm all about getting that overall view of an organization through a well-rounded set of data.  However, sometimes it's better just to measure one thing and go all out.  Like in summer #3, when I planted only cilantro, but had some great cilantro to use all year long, tracking only one thing could be best.  One real-life example of this was the time that I took over a set of summer camps at a new job.  There were a lot of improvements that I wanted to make, but instead of focusing on everything with staff, I picked one thing and drove it home through training, with constant emphasis throughout the summer, and by sharing the results from parent evaluations with staff.  The end result?  Not only did we make the improvements we were going for, but we also saw our registration numbers increase, staff satisfaction increase, and return rate increase.   Sometimes, when you really focus on fixing or improving one thing (or growing one plant), you end up being more successful than you would have if you had tried to do too many.

Whether you're growing data or vegetable, it's sure to be a bit of a messy process, but hope you agree that it's worth it in the end.  And, if anything, at least you've got a new person to laugh with about it all when it doesn't go exactly your way. :-)