One of my most rewarding activities outside of work is teaching a Master Class in Applying Disruptive Thinking for international business students at the University of St. Andrews. I invest time with master students as I want to encourage the self-belief that anyone can, through looking at things differently, disrupt and change the game. It’s an attitude I like to encourage with data teams as well. 

With business students I offer simple analogies such as a measuring cup. I ask them, “Typically what do you do with this?" They say, "You pour water into it, and then you lift it up to confirm what you’ve got.” Then I say, “Well, do you know what someone proposed? If we put a small 45-degree surface on the inside of a measuring cup, we could measure the amount as we pour without having to lift it up.” Then I show them the OXO angled measuring cup. It’s proof that someone came up with a simple idea and found a better way of communicating information and disrupted an industry. You could, in fact, look at OXO as a data business as well as a manufacturer. 

Another example is the long-time practice of selling socks in pairs. I say, "If you look at men, typically, they lose socks, and over time they collect a drawer of odd socks. But what if you sold socks in lots of three, not in pairs?" Most of the students haven’t thought about it. But the creators of Throx certainly did, and formed a company that now sells triplet socks in a variety of styles.

Where’s your data inspiration? 

Now think of the typical data visualisation. Let’s say you’re using graphing technologies for network analysis and searching for financial crime. Most people will look at a visualisation for a minute or two and leave it at that. But it only takes a moment of data visualisation inspiration in one person to say, “Wow, I've just spotted something. And it’s inspired my thinking to do something different.”

Depending on how your team is engaging and interacting with data, something as simple as new data visualisation ideas could inspire real change. At a previous company, we were looking at a chart of days payable outstanding among suppliers. One of my data analysts said, “I wonder if we could use a calendar heat map to overlay the payment transactions and color-code them if they’re early, on time or late?” And as soon as we did that, we found patterns. That little inspiration then kicked off some other work that we wouldn't have thought possible if someone hadn’t looked at the problem differently. Once someone else has been data-inspired, it tends to create a chain effect.

Think about it: can you help to build a data culture where colleagues are equipped with the data knowledge, tools and encouragement to solve problems never considered before? As a data leader, there are endless benefits to encouraging your teams to be data-inspired. For my own inspiration, I look to Luke Williams author of Disrupt and Vijay Govindarajan, author of the Three Box Solution.