How Do You Sell an Excel Dashboard?

Dmitry asks:

I face an issue that has nothing to do with Excel itself: human resistance. I showed a dashboard to my manager and he answered to me that my dashboard is too difficult for him and for top management and insisted to use simple XL-tables with lots of data. I’m a bit confused, why such innovative approach is not accepted by the management? Have you faced with such issues in your professional life?

I know how you feel, and I’m sure many readers do, too. It’s not about the dashboard,  its about change. Everyone resists to change. Often change threatens our believes or, more selfishly, our status and lifestyle. It is a complex issue, and there are no simple and actionable answers. Let’s see what can go wrong.

The Pygmalion Syndrome

If people resist changes you are promoting, you may need to look in the mirror and yourself “what am I doing wrong?”. This one is hard to swallow, I know. You spend weeks or months working hard and you fall in love with your creation. Then nothing happens. People fail to realize how beautiful the creature is.

Breaking news: they actually couldn’t care less. Let me be brutally honest: if you are an Excel expert, chances are you are at the bottom of the food chain and you know much less about the business than you think you know.

What you should do:

  • Ask the right people the right questions;
  • Study internal presentations and find how people look at the data;
  • If you are using charts and other people are using tables, you should find patterns they overlooked (if you don’t, try harder);
  • Come up with a vision and share it; show how a dashboard improves current processes;
  • Make a draft and ask for feedback;
  • Make sure you know the difference between what users say they need and what they really need;
  • Find common needs and translate them into a dashboard that improves what they already have and gives them something more (don’t promise the moon);
  • Work with the users, make sure you deliver what they need but, at the end of the day, it’s your dashboard, not theirs (you’re the expert, and you’ll be harshly reminded of that case something goes wrong).

You are allowed to fall in love with your creature if, and only if, you understand that the creature is the whole process, not the worksheet.

Inertia vs. Innovation

We often have to manage more than we can handle. We can offload some of the burden by delegating and/or by switching to auto-mode. Routines are great time and energy savers but also inertia-inducers. Sure, many users are open to innovation, provided they don’t have to move their asses off the couch. Don’t underestimate inertia.

To overcome inertia, you need at least an initial force. If you can’t sell the benefits of your dashboard the users will not move an inch.

Many users fail to understand that a better chart is much more than a design thing, a prettified chart with no inherent added value. That’s why you must teach them. A before/after comparison can be very useful, but it must be a guided discovery:

  • If they are using tables, show them how they can process much more data using charts;
  • If they are using Excel chart defaults and 3D charts, show them how simple formatting changes can help them get insights faster;
  • If they are using a single chart, show them how multiple charts (small multiples, dashboards…) can improve their analysis;
  • If they are using static charts, show them how they can take advantage of their business knowledge to explore the data dynamically.

Always remember: if they have no compelling reason to move, they will always find a perfectly acceptable reason to keep things as they are. Provide a clear path, and make sure nothing important is left behind.

Office Politics

Well, you can’t avoid it, can you? Office politics (all kinds of politics, actually…) have a deservedly bad reputation, usually because of some rotten apples.

If you are un obscure geek with a great idea you are doomed. If a product manager that knows how to grow her connections has the same idea, then she will probably succeed whereas the poor geek doesn’t even know where to begin…

If your network is weak, you should plan way ahead. Remember: most people don’t even know that charts and dashboard can actually be useful, and not just a (hopefully) pretty way to illustrate some numbers. So, you should start raising awareness and curiosity.

Target some standard reports that could be vastly improved and create alternative designs (Excel is a great prototyping tool). Tell users something like this: “Try to forget everything you know about the market and tell me what you can learn from [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][current report]. Now, let’s try again: what can you learn from [your design]?”. You’ll get great feedback and win people’s attention.

Find a sponsor. Share your vision and focus your message on the benefits for the organization. Quantify them, if possible. Avoid technicalities, no one cares.

Charts Are Not Serious Enough

Many managers believe that charts belong to PowerPoint presentations (there are many misconceptions about charts), and they will not use them for a more serious work. Hard figures with lots of decimal places feel a lot more credible, and who can blame them after three hours of flying pie charts?

Let me reiterate this: descriptive statistics, tables and charts are examples of tools we use to make sense of our data. They all have their strengths and they should all be taken seriously.You don’t miscalculate an average and you don’t design a misaligned table just for fun. Applying a 3D effect (or anything else) that hides or destroys a pattern in a chart do not add credibility and trust. You may get the eyeballs, but the brain is somewhere else.

They Are Not Visual

Old-school managers like tables and it’s hard to change the way they approach the decision making process. And there are non-visual people. People that love numbers, sound, motion, whatever. You can’t force charts upon them. But you can use a table.

Designing a good table is a lost art. Learn again how to sort rows and tables, how to label them, how to add meaningful calculations. And even if a table is the primary object in your report, you can always add graphical objects to help the reader. Design a table-on-steroids with sparklines, conditional formatting and links.

Change is Slow

Changing other people’s behavior is a slow and hard process. They’ll keep falling back into the old routines, even if they agree that the new ones are better. Make sure people understand the benefits and keep asking and giving feedback. If they don’t feel threatened change happens much faster.

I’m not a sales person, and trying to sell something is clearly outside my comfort zone, but I recognize that, at the end of the day, what really matters is not the product itself but how people’s lives are improved by the product. And you have to tell them…

So, what do you think? How do you create a market for your dashboard? What should Dmitry do?[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

12 thoughts on “How Do You Sell an Excel Dashboard?”

  1. Just my opinion, but I think that dashboards are generally sold to the wrong type of user.

    The term ‘dashboard’ is generally taken to mean something like this; (or the equivalent done in Excel or the program of your choice).

    Now that might be fine for running a car, or running a business that consists of a one-man taco stand, but for a business of some size a responsible manager may want to look at a few other variables.

    Perhaps this type of dashboard might be a better analogy;

    A middle manager or business analyst may be more comfortable with something like this, but would a CEO want to look at that much detail?

    In my experience, higher level managers are more likely to see themselves in this position;

    Notice the scarcity of gauges and measures in the last picture. What is important here is communications with the large team of professionals behind the chair.

    So who is Dmitry trying to sell his dashboard to?

  2. Here are two words that are critical – ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ . People change /accept new ways when their feelings are influenced. Trying to convince them logically [only
    ] is more often than not a futile exercise.

  3. It’s a real challenge to move people away from tables, and thank you for an excellent article.

    Your point about decimal points resonates with a post I wrote a while back ( where in an advertisement, S&P had used excessive decimal points on one piece of data to emphasize its seriousness. Obviously data is much more important if it’s incredibly precise…. this is the kind of challenge that we face.

  4. Some days ago I readed in your blog that An Excel Dashboard is the Perfect Excel Learning Tool and I fully agree.

    I use Excel Dashboards as a prototype tool to change the perception that common users have when they approach to spreadsheets.

    I have examples of that into my blog

    The Pygmalion Syndrome says us that is needed a receptive adaptation to accomodate to changes and that is more dificult for all business managers and mainly to CEOs.

  5. “It’s a real challenge to move people away from tables”

    ‘Getting people away from tables’ should never be a goal in and of itself. Once you fall into this way of thinking you’ve lost sight of the actual business needs that want addressing. Also, don’t underestimate the power of the common table to express information in a comprehensive and comprehensible manner.

  6. @nixnut. Yes, what I meant was move people away from rows of tabular data, barely summarized at best. You are of course right that there’s a place on every dashboard for a well thought out table that addresses the business problem the dashboard is meant to solve

  7. I don’t think people resist change. People change their clothes every day, and they get tired of eating the same food every day. What people resist is change that doesn’t make sense to them. Change that happens too fast for them to keep up with. Introduce a new visual element or a new type of data display one at a time. Explain it in person and proactively answer the questions you expect people will have. Gradually make it better and better and explain each step as you do. Once people are used to reading your sparklines and bubble charts and five-dimensional interactive motion charts, they’ll get a lot more out of the data. But if you spring it all on them at once, yes, they’re going to rebel.

  8. “if you are an Excel expert, chances are you are at the bottom of the food chain”

    I’m not so sure about that. In my opinion being an Excel expert, along with other qualities, can help you move up the food chain. Being able to quickly massage data into meaningful reports and dashboards is a very valuable asset for a company. Now that Microsoft is marketing Excel as a BI reporting tool (with PowerPivot) chances are Excel skills will become even more valuable.

  9. I actually didn’t have much of a problem selling a dashboard. I described what I would deliver, had a good plan to take a couple of things that we have to put them all together onto a single page, went ahead and tossed it out.

    My trouble: people are using the deliverable as eye candy, not as a tool as it was intended to be.

  10. @ Jorge: Great article/post and a nice checklist (to do list) when developping/introducing dashboards
    @Dmitry: Make it easier for the manager(s), if you can make their job easier, faster and more enjoyable then they will love you(r work). Dont try to overclass them, make them look stupid, …
    and finally approach the “problem” from a business need and let the manager have the credit for it (lifes not fair but your dashboard will be used and respected by direct collegues, …)
    @All: keep up the great comments and posts.

  11. Great post. Some good advice. Many many changes continually lie within our comfort zone. No problem. We embrace that change.

    Changes in the work process often are not in this category.

    Asking someone to look at data in a different manner or from a different perspective can be threatening to the ego and challenge an individual cognitively.

    More interesting though is the observation that the individual may find his prior analyses may just be plain wrong. They start to question prior data was interpreted either incorrectly or not with the comprehension that was needed to make the decisions that were made.

    Uh Oh!

  12. How to sell a dashboard: explain what it is for, and only try to get people to use it for its intended purpose of regularly monitoring and staying aware of changes, trends, outliers and other things which may need them to pay attention to or take action about.

    A dashboard is *not* a replacement for a report. Trying to sell it as such will fail, and rightly so.

    If your managers are used to getting a monthly report with lots of detail available to them they will rebel if you try to give them only a summary with a few super-dense microcharts and RAG indicators.
    Try taking away the Financial Times (or WSJ) when it arrives every day at the office, cut out only the headlines and paste them onto a sheet of card. Give this to the CFO instead of the whole newspaper and tell him the summary is much more powerful. Now go pack your desk.

    If your management have poor reports, introduce improvements to those reports. Add summary information (in graphics form and/or aggregated summaries). Add trend information (again, figures may be appropriate at first to show things like yoy variance, sparklines might add more detail later). But don’t take away the detail the manager wants to see.
    Introduce dashboards as an *addition* to weekly/monthly reports. Show how you can provide important summary information and draw attention to areas that need to be addressed in a much more agile, up-to-the-minute (or at least the day) fashion. Show that this can enable the business to react to changes or emerging trends as they happen, rather than having a post-mortem at the monthly meeting about what went wrong.
    If you have the technology or skills, enable the manager to get behind the dashboard data to drill down into detail where it is needed. This way they can start to see the connection between the summarised version and the “old” way, and ease themselves into the change.
    While some of the visualisations used in dashboards may be useful in the context of a report, the two deliverables have different purposes, and you need to always keep in mind what the consumer of the data wants to see, and what they will do with the data and their interpretation of it.

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