4 Dashboard Debacles You Can Avoid

Over the last decade or so I’ve helped design and implement dozens of measurement dashboards. They’re lots of fun because the process typically brings wildly divergent views together in order to define common goals. Interestingly, some of the most successful were for governmental agencies and non-profits. And of course there have been failures: dashboards that were designed and approved and later abandoned for a variety of reasons.

What is fascinating is that the common threads among those that failed had nothing to do with the industry they were in, the nature of the company, or the enthusiasm of the measurement maven in charge.

Dashboard failure almost always comes down to one or more of the following factors:

  • Lack of management support and internal politics
  • Lack of team participation in the metrics
  • Impractical or unusable technology
  • Too rigid a culture to adapt to changing objectives or priorities

Let’s examine each one:

1. Lack of management support and internal politics

For years I’ve known that the best time to bring in a new measurement program is during a senior management change; a new CEO, president, or CMO always wants to evaluate existing systems. The first thing she or he will do is look around to see what kind of metrics are in place. Those metrics are almost invariably found wanting and a search for a new approach to measurement begins. Senior leadership understands the need to take a long-term and comprehensive approach to change. So chances are good that their commitment will last through the year or so it may take to fully implement a measurement dashboard system.

On the other hand, it’s a very different story if senior leadership has been in place for years and has either been content with whatever numbers it’s been seeing, or doesn’t give a damn what comms does as long as the company is profitable. In that scenario, pushing a new measurement system up through the various levels of approval will be a Sisyphean challenge.

Internal politics also plays a huge role. I once implemented a very successful comprehensive dashboard for a major international brand. Just as training was completed and people were starting to see the benefits of consistent metrics, the company reorganized, and the dashboard champions were let go. The new CMO came on board and—poof!—the goals the dashboard was set up to measure were drastically rewritten. The dashboard was mothballed, even though various teams continued to use the technology solution we had implemented.

2. Lack of team participation in the metrics

On the other hand, a purely top-down approach does not necessarily guarantee success. Communications teams can vary tremendously in terms of their skills, technological expertise, mathematics phobias, and feelings about being evaluated.

So the first necessity is to involve everyone on the team in the process of establishing metrics. Not just the directors and managers: everyone who’s results will be measured by the dashboard. No one wants to be punished for something they had no control over, and that is frequently the cause of dashboard rejection by lower-level staff members. Make sure you get everyone’s input, including remote workers and people who never speak up in meetings. Everyone needs to be heard and their objections aired if the ultimate implementation is to succeed.

Another factor to consider is ersatz enthusiasm. While team members can easily sense that it is politically advantageous to publicly express buy-in when the big boss is in the room, that’s a very long way from actually reporting results from the dashboard. Old habits are hard to break, and it may take several reporting periods and multiple training sessions to get everyone up to speed.

3. Impractical or unusable technology

I’ve seen a number of dashboards fail due to usability issues. In some cases the  technology was just too complex for the people who had to use it. The platform looked great, but when they tried to get data out of it they got lost in a sea of options.

In other cases the promised in-house technical support never materialized. Still others never took the time to go over the results as a group, and so never dug into the data to get the insight that the dashboard could have provided. The end result of all these forms of failure was that the people in charge of measurement went back to manually updating Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoints.

So, before you make any decisions about what technology will be used to drive your measurement dashboard you need to have a lot more answers than you think. Read this first: “7 Steps to Design an Integrated Measurement Dashboard for Your Entire Communications Effort.”

The nature and type of technology depends on what goals are being measured, what disciplines are included in the dashboard, the nature of the data available, and what data will become available. Then you need to figure out what technologies other departments are using. Chances are good that finance, marketing/sales, and manufacturing are all using some sort of dashboard already. If there’s a ton of internal expertise around that one, you might as well take advantage of it. Comms teams are never high up on the tech support priority list, so without some internal know-how you may be on your own.

If you’re a data whiz, the task of bringing in five or six different data streams into a Tableau or Power BI dashboard is a piece of cake. At least compared to the ginormous data integration projects that most corporate data analysis have to deal with. But to the average denizen of a corporate communications department, you might as well ask them to figure out how to take a picture of a black hole.

My recommendation is to start with whatever you are using in house, probably Excel, PowerPoint, and Google Analytics. Almost every data source you can imagine will export into Excel. This will enable you to bring all your data and metrics into one place, from which you can then create the requisite charts, graphs, and reports that management requires.

Hot tip for an automated measurement dashboard: If the manual requirements of entering data and updating get to be too much, the cheapest and easiest solution for an automated dashboard is Google Sheets and Data Studio. Excel files can easily be pulled into Google Sheets and then Google Sheets seamlessly integrates with Data Studio to make your dashboard. The process is relatively easy to update and once the bugs are all worked out, you shouldn’t have to mess with it. If this all sounds daunting, call me and we’ll devise a solution.

4. Too rigid a culture to adapt to changing objectives or priorities

Finally, if the culture of your organization is not geared towards continuous improvement and a willingness to learn from mistakes, it won’t matter what your measurement dashboard looks like or is made from. Inertia is a problem in every organization; a willingness to try new ideas, fail fast, and try another one may not be in your company’s DNA. Comprehensive and consistent evaluation of communications programs is pointless unless your organization is willing to do things differently if the results show things aren’t working.

Culture clashes have doomed many a dashboard. If “the way we’ve always done it” is the way it will be done until leadership changes (see reason 1 above) don’t waste your time making pretty dashboard charts and graphs. Keep your dashboard as simple as you can and spend your time studying it to continuously improve your program. ∞

(The image above began with an image from Nicolas Raymond on flickr.)

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.