Executive Dashboards Vs. Actionable Business Intelligence: Where’s the Wow?

The problem was that they weren’t useful.

When I asked employees how the dashboards were used, they would universally tell me that they didn’t need the information. Even worse, they sometimes intentionally set thresholds to keep information off the dashboard. Rather than helping, these dashboards were influencing behavior in a harmful way. Some of those employees even joked that we could have built the dashboard as a static jpg and saved a lot of money.

What was going on in those companies? Why wasn’t all of our hard work to design an elegant, informative dashboard paying off?

It’s because they were missing a key ingredient.

Why Executive Dashboards Aren’t Giving You the Intelligence You Need

In Design Thinking, we state requirements as User Experience Hills using the Who-What-Wow formula:

  • Who – Who are the users?
  • What – What do the users do to interact with the system (what is their need)?
  • Wow – What is the meaningful outcome of the interaction?

It’s that third piece of the puzzle – the meaningful outcome – that is missing from the vast majority of executive dashboards. When we apply the Who-What-Wow formula to these dashboards, we often find that the Wow is hard to find or of unknown value. To get a good answer to this question, we need to know how much impact the dashboard will have and how technically difficult it will be to create.

The problem is that when we measure executive dashboards against this simple prioritization matrix, we usually find that they are expensive to build and maintain. And that would be fine if they delivered corresponding value. But they don’t. By their nature, these dashboards have a narrow audience and an unclear impact even within that audience.

In other words, executive dashboards are high-cost, but low-yield.

Ramping Up Your Intelligence Solution

So what’s the solution? How can you decide 1) if you need an executive dashboard in the first place, and 2) what you should do instead if you don’t?

To answer the first question, it’s important to evaluate the scope of the dashboard and its overall value. It’s not necessarily true to say that executive dashboards are never helpful. There may be times you can use them to supplement other insights effectively. The problem is that the odds of gleaning enough value to make your dashboard worth the steep costs of development and maintenance are slim if your audience is limited to the C-suite. Most companies already know this, and they try to find ways to increase the value of the dashboard outside the C-suite. That’s how we get executive dashboards being displayed in the network operations center or even the company lobby, where they are rarely (if ever) useful.

But there’s a better way to gather and act upon your key insights.

We often suggest that our clients pursue an actionable intelligence solution instead of creating an executive dashboard, which brings us to the second question: how do you know what solution will deliver the insights and results you need?

We recommend that you start by asking executives some detailed questions, including:

  • What metrics they need to see
  • Why they need to see them (what value are they hoping to receive)
  • How that information will inform their work or influence their behavior

The goal here is to learn what the executive wants to achieve using the data from the dashboard, and then to find more effective solutions to deliver those results. This information is the foundation for the next step: gathering requirements.

Test Your Assumptions: Gather Requirements Using the 5 Whys

As you determine what your solution needs to do and how it should be structured, it’s important to dig deep. You need a complete understanding of the pain points users experience so that you can create a solution that effectively solves those underlying problems rather than just treating the symptoms.

To do this, we recommend using a Design Thinking exercise known as the 5 Whys. Start with a pain point or goal, and then ask why that situation occurs (or why it is desirable). Answer the question, and then ask why again. Repeat this process five times (hence the 5 Whys). With each repetition, you are forced to dig deeper into how specific causes produce specific effects. By the time you work your way through the entire exercise, you’ll have the information you need to construct an effective solution, including the relationships between various data points, the actions that information should impact, when those actions should take place, and which stakeholders will benefit.

Here’s an example of what this exercise might look like:

The 5 Whys

Once you have completed the 5 Whys exercise for each pain point and goal, you will have the detailed requirements you need to design a system that will deliver the right information to the right people at the right time. With this type of solution, you can objectively measure impact. Since you know the behavior you want to influence and you can measure the outcomes of the desired behavior, you’ll be better equipped to make data-based decisions that will positively impact your organization.

The bottom line is that even in the wide world of dashboards outside the C-suite, your return on investment will still be higher if you can automate a process based on business intelligence rather than giving data points to a human by means of a dashboard, and leaving them to execute that same process manually.

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