I spend a lot of time thinking about culture, maybe because I’m the daughter of a cultural anthropologist/historian/ethno-musicologist, maybe because I care a lot about group dynamics and healthy structures in organizations, maybe because I love dairy products, especially sourdough and cultured butter. No matter the genesis… Culture. Is. Important. full stop. We can either embrace and proactively define our culture or we can swim in the cultures we’ve inherited (spoiler alert: bad idea), but either way, culture is all around us.

Most of you know that I have a full time job supporting a philanthropic foundation to use Salesforce for grants management and communications. When I’m not blogging, I like to help small organizations clean up their data, sometimes pro bono, and sometimes as a consultant under contract. In all of these efforts, improving data processes also means navigating the waters of cultural change. They are as intertwined as a cheddar and mozzarella cheese stick.

Today, I want to write about positive data culture – what that looks like in an organization and some strategies I’ve used to get past cultural blocks. Before I get too deep in my own thoughts, I want to share a wonderful resource with all of you – the team at DataCulture.io. They have developed a FANTASTIC suite of accessible, FUN, quick, educational, overall awesome activities. Learn more here.

The 4 C’s of Positive Data Culture

  • Curiosity
  • Collaboration
  • Clarity
  • Celebration

I’ve worked with a whole BUNCH of organizations, from scrappy volunteer collectives to national social movements. I’ve solved problems from alphabetizing a spreadsheet to migrating entire databases. And what I’ve found is that organizations with positive data culture have these 4 traits in common. They ask questions – of each other, of their data, of their systems. Their day to day work is informed by curiosity and humility. Everyone is encouraged to ask, ask, ask. No one is punished for not knowing. Mistakes are ok – and they are usually fixable if you get curious about the root cause. Curiosity is a beautiful thing.

Next comes collaboration and a healthy balance between role definition (solo work), team work, and all-hands-on-deck moments. Organizations with positive data culture recognize that different people have different specialties, which makes collaboration all the more useful when tackling a tough data problem. But, they also want to pursue capacity building, so they work hard to do skill shares and use collaboration opportunities toward that goal. A great example of collaboration could be a spreadsheet expert who can manipulate survey data and a community organizer who administered the survey working together to reveal trends and lessons.

Clarity is essential. Many groups have hundreds of thousands of datapoints, even millions! Which ones should we be monitoring closely? I have recently enjoyed challenging myself with this value: When am I working toward a goal or requirement that has been clearly articulated? And when am I being creative and seeing what else is “out there?”

Finally, celebration! It is extremely important to celebrate data victories – whether that is proving that our work is making an impact … or just running the numbers and not getting stuck in spreadsheet rabbit holes! Organizations with a healthy data culture celebrate team members for learning new spreadsheet skills, taking risks, and generating insights.

How do we get there?

You might be thinking… my org has a crummy data culture! We are crabby, confused, chaotic, critical, and resource-constrained! How do we get curious, collaborative, clear and celebratory? Here are some strategies I have used:

  1. Fun and games. My goal is to be friendly and approachable, to counteract the stress and impostor syndrome that people often feel with spreadsheets. Recently, I introduced myself on a Slack channel for an organization I support with “2 truths and a lie!” and asked staff to vote using Slack emojis. It’s been a fun and goofy way to “warm up” to each other. Here’s another example – at my last job, we played a game called “pin the expense on the chart of accounts” (or maybe it was Jeopardy?) Either way, we used gamification to make learning fun, friendly, low-stakes competitive, and a heck-of-a-lot less daunting.

Solicit questions. The power differential between spreadsheet champions and spreadsheet learners can make it extremely intimidating to ask questions. So, I reward and require questions, and praise people who come to me and ask for help. When I share a new dataset and some recommendations, I always ask people to look at it and send me questions. How did I get to those numbers? Did I take into consideration x… y… z? Those are the conversations we SHOULD be having. And to get there, positive reinforcement goes a long way.

Tell a story. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how about a story? I use storytelling to animate data, like a recent powerpoint where I alternated slides between metrics and first-person survey quotes about how meaningful and impactful the program was. I also tell stories about times when I’ve felt frustrated and still tackled a complex problem. Resilience is all about trial and error; it becomes so much easier if you have a guide or a mentor. Stories create a channel for genuine connection, and that’s all the more important as a foundation for when the going gets tough.

Gratitude attitude. Nobody LOVES data entry (even me!), so I try my best to recognize when teams I support have to do boring, tedious stuff in service of a larger goal. Gratitude goes a LONG way! In a recent presentation, I made sure we dedicated an entire slide to thanking the team for trying their best with data habits, which made the rest of the presentation possible. Reporting is a great chance to give credit where credit is due… not ME, the data analyst! but rather to THEM, the front line staff! Data entry is notoriously undervalued, so let’s start valuing it now. Plus, we can thank people for learning, risk taking, getting curious, and more. Being grateful for the work my database users do makes me more compassionate towards their complaints, mistakes, or other bumps along the way.

I’ve written a lot about change management but I’ve written less about the cultural preparation that makes effective change management even possible. Us activists are up against SO many obstacles already – let’s get “out of our own way” in the data department. Even a small dose of the 4 C’s will make a BIG difference. Try them out and leave me a comment about how it goes! I can’t wait to hear from you.

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