A successful big data team has to have strong supporting players

When assembling your big data team, it's prudent to consider some of the less obvious players: the salesman, the coach, the regulator, and the auditor.

There's no movie without supporting actors

 I saw the movie, "Lincoln" on the silver screen earlier this year. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis did a terrific job playing our 16th President; however, without Sally Field, who played First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, I don't think the movie would have done as well. And although she didn't win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress that year, the fact that she was nominated demonstrates that a good number of people share my opinion.

When most people think of the stars on their big data team, they think about their data scientists. And normally, when you hear me talk about the other important players on your big data team, I talk about leaders, managers, and sometimes business analysts. However, there are some supporting actors that make the whole team work better. When assembling your big data team, it's prudent to consider some of the less obvious players: the salesman, the coach, the regulator, and the auditor.

The Salesman

The salesman on your team is the one responsible for making sure the outputs of the team are well received by the organization. In the traditional sense, this is called organizational change management (OCM); however, I like to think about it more in terms of internal sales and marketing. In fact, when I'm not helping marketing leaders increase the effectiveness of their marketing, I'm typically helping leaders with OCM. That's because, the same principles and techniques apply; they're just directed toward a different audience (i.e., marketing is external, change management is internal).

The salesman on your big data team has the often daunting and perilous job of getting the organization to appreciate a more scientific, analytic approach to management and operations. The leader on your team is ultimately accountable for this function; however, it makes sense to delegate this responsibility to someone else. Typically the leader's formal authority prohibits honest and open communication from the troops. This is not good if you want to affect change. For these reasons, have your salesman report to your leader, not your manager. Having a change agent report to a manager is a disaster because they don't think alike.

The Coach

The coach on your team is the one responsible for keeping your team happy and motivated. Traditionally, this is the responsibility of the Human Resource (HR) department; however, the problem is this: how effective can somebody be to a team if they're an anonymous resource in another department? To give you a clue on how to fill this role, they are typically people who would otherwise be working in HR, or working as an internal or external management consultant. They understand individual and group behavior and they know how to run interventions to make the team work more efficiently. These are the people who are facilitating all those "touchy-feely" sessions.

The coach on your big data team has the often under-appreciated job of helping people get along. This is always difficult, but it's even more difficult with a group of opinionated data scientists. Coaches have a behavioral background, similar to the salesman, but their focus is not on the stakeholders - it's on the team. Like the salesman, this is a function that your leader is ultimately accountable for, so the same rules apply. It's a big mistake to have them report to the manager - they should report to the leader.

The Regulator

The regulator on your team is the one who makes sure the policies and processes are being followed. This doesn't imply that you should run a bureaucracy; however, execution without some sort of methodology is chaos. Even agile practitioners are following a methodology (ironically, agile methodologies are more stringent that non-agile methodologies). It's also the regulator's job to be the devil's advocate - to always challenge the accepted direction of the team and see if there are any holes. If this sounds a lot like governance and risk management - that's because it is.

Regulators perform the controlling function, which is a component of the management function. The classic problem with having governance and risk-related roles report to management is the inherent conflict of interest. How can you have a direct report challenge your management direction? That said, I think they should work for managers with the spirit of helping managers accomplish a controlled execution. This takes a healthy relationship built on honesty and trust, and a blatant disregard for any power distance created by the reporting structure. The first time a manager uses her authority to overrule a regulator's recommendations, just to save face, this function becomes defunct.

The Auditor

It's the auditor's job to make sure the team is producing the expected quality. If your standards are high, it's the auditor's job to make sure your standards are met or exceeded. If you're counting on your big data team to produce breakthrough analyses that will engender your strategic advantage, these analyses better be good. That's what you're auditor's there for.

This is very similar to the regulator's role, except that the regulator is more focused on process; whereas, the auditor is more focused on outputs. It's still a controlling function, so it's appropriate to have auditors report to managers; however, the same caveats apply. When managers are under pressure, it's a common tactic to take a shortcut through quality. And if your manager pulls rank on your auditor, there's not much the auditor can do. This is another good reason to have both an auditor and a regulator report to your manager. As a team, it's easier for them to keep the manager honest.

Bottom line

I'll go along with the data scientists being the superstars on the big data analytics team, with analytic leaders and managers running close second; however, there's more to highly performing teams than just great talent, great leadership, and great management. You must also consider the supporting actors on your team: the salesman, the coach, the regulator, and the auditor. They all perform an important function which warrants individual attention placed in individual roles. If your business case supports it, I highly recommend fortifying your team with these professionals to undergird your overall success. If you have a big data team now, think about which supporting actors you're missing and work quickly to round out your team. That way, you can relax knowing you've done everything you can to ensure your big data success. You might even catch a movie - I hear Oprah plays a great supporting role in Lee Daniels' "The Butler."