(ôrēənˈtiriNG/) noun—a competitive sport in which participants find their way to various checkpoints with the aid of a map and compass, the winner being the one that’s the most accurate and with the lowest elapsed time.

I’ve been a Boy Scout leader for many years. It’s one of the things I really love outside of family and friends. Orienteering is consistently a favorite activity for most of the boys. In the beginning, they are really incompetent and for good reasons. Orienteering involves things you don’t typically do, new tools and techniques to learn, PLUS you have to view the world a little differently. Over time, some boys get better and some boys do all they can to avoid it.

I’ve been involved in the world of data and all its flavors for a long time. When we first launched The Data Warehousing Institute in the mid-90’s, our most requested research was titled “The Top Ten Mistakes to Avoid in Data Warehousing.” The U.S. business media, who often didn’t know what the term data warehousing even meant, ran articles about those early multi-million dollar mistakes. It turns out that the world of data isn’t much different than life in general; the best teachers are often failure and, unfortunately, some of the best lessons learned are learned the hard way.

Because our world is obviously a lot more technical now, with new tools and technologies popping up every day, it makes even more sense to learn from others and avoid the obstacles that could lie in your path to data analytics nirvana.

The purpose of this article is not to give you a list of mistakes to avoid; those documents are available if you want to read them and from many good sources. The purpose is to get you orienteering – finding your way, along important checkpoints, with a good map and a compass (or GPS if you prefer).

The second purpose for the article regards being trustworthy (the first on the list of the 12 points of the Scout Law). In orienteering, the young scouts learn early on that you cannot bluff your way into finding those checkpoints. Often one boy is reading a map and another boy is looking for coordinates on the compass while others look around the topography looking for key points. It is a joint effort, which is easy for us to relate to because we all work in teams or business units or divisions or companies, but it requires trustworthiness and being quick to throw up your hand and say “I’m not sure,” or “we need to back up to our last checkpoint and try again,” or “can someone else take a look at this?”

As you and your colleagues move forward with all kinds of initiatives to transform data into meaningful business intelligence, you need that map, compass and a great team to help. So what does that all mean?

  1. Get a Map and a Compass. Fast. Someone somehow needs to clearly identify the business problems and needs and what the desired outcomes need to be. Obviously, you don’t know all the details yet, but be clear in what you are trying to solve for. Put together as much reasonable detail as possible.
  2. Build a Great Team. Make sure all the folks on the team want to be “on the bus” and want to be the first and best in finding and reaching the goal(s). If they aren’t excited and wanting to learn along this big journey, you might want to find some other kids for the troop.
  3. Show the Love. Wayne Eckerson has been a friend of mine for over two decades. He’s authored several books on BI. He’s in high demand as a keynote speaker and has been a voice of positivity in the world of BI for a long time. I recently enjoyed a blog post from him, entitled “Data Analytics and Three Levels of Love,” and I quote:

“To succeed, a data analytics manager needs to build a team in which every individual performs to his or her highest potential. This requires an open, caring environment where individuals aren’t afraid to ask “dumb” questions, suggest ideas without being criticized, and take risks without fear of losing their jobs.

To create high performance teams, data analytics managers need to practice love. They need to:

  • Listen to each person on the team, taking time to establish a personal connection.
  • Respect and value every opinion, giving each person a fair hearing and the benefit of the doubt.
  • Sacrifice their time, put aside their emotions, and occasionally risk their reputations to serve and defend those who serve them.”

Yup, show your team some love!

  1. Always Be Selling. That one might seem out of place. But the world of analytics is not clear to everyone and seem even question it’s importance in driving businesses forward. Another great friend shared an article on LinkedIn® written by their CEO of 40 years. “Selling is easy if you tell the truth.” I believe in that mantra. Get excited. Learn your business. Hone your skills. Strengthen your team. Tell the truth.
  2. Get Some Outside Help if Needed. Young and inexperienced scouts, and even young and inexperienced scoutmasters, need to learn from others. You want to hear from people who have learned from experience and the school of hard knocks. Putting together great data projects at your company will do a lot to advance your career and provide a lot of job satisfaction. But there are always things you didn’t consider nor expect. There are some great folks out there who are willing to orient you along the right path and navigate the land mines of requirements gathering techniques, governance, the latest technologies, methodologies, architecture, implementation planning and training (just to name a few).

Some basic ideas, but some that are often forgotten along the busyness of the way. I welcome your comments.

Steven Crofts is a Director at CyberGroup, Inc., in Dallas, TX. He was owner and CEO of The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) and has been a part of the data community for over 30 years.