Looking Beyond the Numbers: Using Data to Improve Your Organization's Culture

It’s a common discussion point among professionals in the parks and recreation industry to talk about the constant need to “do more with less.” However, there’s one important resource that has the power to help drive efficiency, increase revenue, and improve the services that we provide to our communities that isn’t lacking — data. In fact, according to IBM, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. But despite the fact that we have so much of it, we struggle to convert that data into information that we can use.

One reason for that disconnect in parks and recreation, and what stops so many agencies from diving into their data, is that the focus is often solely on numbers, technology and math — something that can intimidate (or at the very least not excite) the majority of professionals in our people-driven industry. But the reality is, our data is most often a reflection of people — our customers, our community and our staff — and their behaviors. And that means that as we focus on our data, our work has the potential to benefit both our numerical results as well as people. In fact, data-driven organizations are starting to notice that the processes that they put into place to better use their data also have the added benefit of improving organizational culture in many different ways.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

If you asked everyone on your team to define what success looks like, or what your organization’s top priorities are, how confident are you that they would all give the same answer? A well-defined set of performance measures that are shared throughout the organization can be a great way to reinforce what changes and improvements your organization is trying to make. And if leadership shows that these measures are routinely tracked, examined and evaluated, staff will focus more of their attention on work that moves the needle on those measures. The same can hold true for advisory boards, elected officials, and the public as well. In this way, data can be a great way to communicate agency priorities and help create movement around those priorities.

Break Down Silos

We all know that teamwork is critical to a successful organization. The same holds true for data. When you find ways to bring your data together in one place and share it among the entire organization, you’ll find that there is a large benefit of time savings and increased understanding of your operations. For example, marketing staff could access program registration data to determine which programs need a little extra push, and later measure the impact of their marketing efforts on sales. Camp supervisors could use data on employee and participant injuries to help shape the safety portion of their camp staff training. And customer satisfaction results could be viewed by maintenance staff to understand how customers feel about the cleanliness and maintenance of parks and facilities, and how changes in operations may impact the customer.

Increase Transparency and Trust

When data is shared across an organization, it not only breaks down silos, but also has other benefits. When staff can see what data their supervisors and leaders are viewing, it helps establish trust. And when leaders make the effort to share examples of how they’ve used the data to inform decisions, it helps increase buy-in of these changes from staff. But this benefit isn’t just about leaders building trust with the rest of their organization. Leaders of data-driven organizations also learn to put more trust in their staff. As they make the switch from making gut decisions to data-informed ones, leaders have to work with and listen to those who have the best handle on data, which can sometimes mean engaging and involving staff at the lower levels of the organization.

Engage Your Teams and Encourage Innovation

One distinguishing factor that separates successful users of data from everyone else is their focus on the future and using data to empower decision-makers instead of using it to constantly look backward to see how the organization performed in meeting past targets. This future focus means that they are always asking questions like, “Why?” “What will happen…?” and “What if we…?” This culture of asking questions and constantly trying new things to improve your results can spur a lot of creativity and excitement among staff. Of course, as with any innovation, not every data-informed action you take will be an instant success. But by using data to help shift your view to the future, you will find your organization constantly asking questions, trying new things, and learning from successes and failures, which over the long run helps build a culture of innovation.

Long-lasting culture change is usually the product not of a “culture fix,” but instead the byproduct of strategies and processes that organizations put in place in the course of doing important work. And while these cultural benefits may not make the initial struggle of diving into your data any easier, they should certainly make it more worth the effort in the long run.

Realizing the Potential of Big Data in Local Government

As much as we hate to admit it, we humans are a fairly predictable bunch. Our habits, routines, and preferences generally remain the same until some external circumstance changes or life event such as moving, getting married, changing jobs, etc. occurs.  (If you doubt me, I would highly recommend Charles Dugg’s book “The Power of Habit” to learn why).

This is why in job interviews, interviewers usually ask a few “Tell me about a time when…” questions. They are trying to learn about past behaviors of the interviewee in order to gauge potential for future success. 

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A Lesson in Government Transparency from an Unlikely Source

Working in local government, I can't think of a buzzword that currently holds more weight with the public than "transparency."  And the funny thing is that despite its seemingly semi-recent rise to importance, it's really nothing new.  In 1913, Louis Brandeis, who would later become a Supreme Court Justice, famously said "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants..." referring to bankers at the turn of the century when financial reform was demanded after the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. He believed that by educating customers and investors through transparency, the public could best regulate bankers through the open market (i.e. poorly performing or corrupt bankers would no longer have customers and would go out of business on their own) and the government wouldn't need to regulate the types of deals that bankers made, nor the potential size of their profits.

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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. :-)

This One's for the "People Persons"

Over the past two weeks, I've had the opportunity to present a session entitled "Counting What Counts: Using Data to Drive Real Change" at two park & recreation conferences.  I was thrilled with the participation at both, but noticed that after each session, I had several people make a comment to me along the lines of:

"I'm more of a people person, and I actually really enjoyed your session."

While I'm excited that A) people enjoyed the sessions, and B) people who wouldn't typically gravitate towards numbers and data decided to spend over an hour learning about it with me, I think that it shows that there's still a real misconception that data is only for "numbers people."  Now I know that I'm (proudly) a little geekier than the average population when it comes to this stuff, but I promise that data doesn't have to be intimidating or boring.  And when presented thoughtfully, data doesn't even have to include numbers.

Have I completely confused you?  Stay with me while I prove it with the following equation.  

So people result in some sort of interaction, which results in data.  Easy, right?  And I didn't even need to use numbers!

Well, if the above equation is true, Algebra 101 tells us that the following equation is also true (and you thought you'd never use algebra again...).

What's this mean?  Well, if we want to, we can use data to affect interactions, which will in turn affect people.  Sound too simple?  Well....math, data, and all that stuff that sometimes seems confusing really doesn't have to be hard.  But if you need some proof, here's a recent real-life example.

One of the performance indicators that we track at my agency is the percent of households in our community that complete a transaction with us each year.  This includes any household that registers for a program, buys a pass, rents a facility, donates to our scholarship fund, etc.  We had no idea what to expect from this metric, so in 2013, we let our customers take the lead.  In this case, people interacted with our park district, which resulted in data that told us that 26% of households in our community completed a transaction with us in 2013.

Or in other words, PEOPLE = INTERACTIONS = DATA.

Since we really haven't found any other park & recreation agencies tracking these same metrics, we really had no idea whether or not this was a typical result.  But regardless, we decided to work on improving this number in 2014.  Using our newfound data, we focused the entire year on our interactions with our customers, which went something like this:

As an agency, we worked together to attract new customers to our park district.  These efforts led to the highest number of program registrations since we started tracking this number in 2007 and also the highest number of pass sales in recent years.  We had set the lofty goal to increase that household participation though and so when mid-December came around and we still hadn't reached it, we came up with an plan.

We reviewed all of our customers that had participated with us in 2013, but hadn't returned in 2014 for some reason.  We learned that this amounted to 1,400 households, which seemed like a large amount, but dug a little deeper and found out that this meant that our household retention rate was 75%, which didn't seem so bad afterall. (Side note, this is why it's so important to dig deeper when you have questions about your data, instead of just going back to making assumptions about the initial results.)  We then contacted those 1,400 households to let them know that we missed them and offered them a coupon to come back by the end of the year.  We should have given ourselves more time to get this effort out to make it more convenient for customers to take advantage of it, but it was a our first time and we decided that trying something is better than nothing.

The result of that coupon? Ten households took advantage of the offer. Sounds like a terrible response, doesn't it?  Well, even though we would have loved to see a higher number, because of other available data, we know that our average customers spend $630/year with us.  This means that for a $250 goodwill investment ($25 coupon X 10), we were able to serve 10 more households.  And if they enjoy their program/pass and continue as a customer in 2015 with us, we could earn an estimated $6,300 return, which in turn allows us to provide even more services to our community.  One of those 10 people even wrote a letter to our Board president expressing that she was excited about our park district's new fitness options and that she appreciated our offer and was going to sign up for an on-going membership with the park district.  Suddenly not so shabby of a result, huh?

So how did it all end?  Well, with less than 48 hours left in the year, we met our target and increased our overall household participation to 30% or 816 additional households.

Or in other words, DATA = INTERACTIONS = PEOPLE.  See how that works?

That means that because of our focus on data, we were able to positively affect people in the following ways:

  • our staff rallied around a common goal,
  • we learned new data about our agency that will help us better understand how well we are serving our community,
  • our staff initiated a new marketing effort that they want to repeat and improve upon for next year, and
  • we increased the number of people served and were able to offer more recreation opportunities to our community than even before.

The simple fact is that when you really think about it, those "numbers" are people, so when you care about the right numbers, you're really caring about people.  And this means that anything you do to positively affect those numbers is also positively affecting the community that you serve.  

In fact, the more I think about it, maybe when it comes down to it, those "people persons" might have the potential to be the biggest "numbers persons" of us all?