Purple People and Green People


/ 2014-05-11

Business Intelligence guru, analyst and author, Wayne Eckerson, and I had great times when we worked together at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI). Although we have both moved on to other ventures, we remain in touch and I still like reading his books and articles.

I particularly enjoyed the first chapter of his most recent book, Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights from Information Insiders, where he talks about the concept of “purple people.” But before I explain that, read this concept from Wayne in his book.

Breakthrough innovation occurs when reconciling opposites. Living at one end or the other of a philosophical or cultural spectrum is comfortable, but not terribly interesting or instructive. You know the answers before people ask the questions. Your past, present, and future are hard wired and unchanging.

That might make you think of today’s crazy world of data—whether it’s big or small. He continues.

But people who live at the confluence of disparate approaches and opinions have a broader perspective. They see connections and possibilities that others miss. They speak multiple languages and gracefully move between different groups and norms. They continuously translate, synthesize, and unify. As a result, they imagine new ways to solve old problems, and they reinvent old ways to tackle new challenges. They are powerful change agents and value creators.

In the world of analytics, I call these men and women “purple people.” They are not “blue” in the business or “red” in technology, but a blend of the two, hence purple. Purple people are true analytical leaders …

These interesting folks are “purple” not just from the blend of red and blue in their veins, but the collective experiences they have gone through. They represent a new breed of corporate intelligence and likely will become the next generation of up-and-coming executives.

And here Wayne summarizes it well…

In many organizations, business people and technologists move in different circles. There is a yawning cultural gulf between them: they speak different languages, report to different managers, socialize with different people, and have different career ambitions. Neither side trusts or particularly respects the other. Neither side understands the pressures, deadlines and challenges the other faces. They are at loggerheads. Only “purple people” can break this logjam.

Analytics is not like most information technology (IT) disciplines; it requires a thorough and ongoing understanding of business issues, processes, tactics and strategies to succeed. Analytics is about delivering information that answers business questions and tests business assumptions and hypotheses. And since those questions and hypotheses are shaped by market conditions, they change continuously. As a result, analytical solution can’t succeed unless it continually adapts to an ever-changing business environment.

The only way to create an adaptable system—an intrinsic contradiction—is to find people who are comfortable straddling the worlds of business and technology. Purple people can speak the language of business and translate requirements into terms that technologists can understand. Conversely, they can show business people the latent value of data and how to exploit it through judicious investments in people, process and analytical technologies. Because purple people move comfortably in both camps, they serve as data ambassadors who reconcile business and IT and for a h2 and lasting partnership that delivers true business value.

One question that comes up is how to do you find these “purple people?” They are obviously extremely bright and hard-working folks who likely have h2 resumes and a solid reputation in their current business or IT departmental roles—and are willing to “switch sides.” That willingness to broaden horizons becomes the seed of a superstar in an organization.

Think of a financial or economics analyst who joins a BI team and brings along a deep knowledge of the company’s finance and accounting nuances, including its people, processes, challenges and opportunities. Such a person can speak clearly and confidently when hashing out issues and clarifying requirements. They understand realistic priorities and also have vision for where things could go—if done right.

Is it easy to find these folks? Nope. And I guarantee you won’t find them just coming out of college. It takes a keen eye to identify, challenge and groom folks who have the potential to step out and become these hybrids. Hopefully, some of you are interested in taking the leap.

The bottom line: if you want to become an indispensable BI and Analytics person in your company, become purple.

The Need for Green People

When I recently re-read some of the chapters in Wayne’s book, I started to think we need some “green people” as well. Not green as in envious and jealous, but as a combination of “yellow people” and “blue people.”

As we discussed, “blue people” are the business users and departments, but “yellow people” could represent company executives who are creating concerns or are unwilling to be brave and give some things a try. Or they might be the kind who want to see proof of the value of BI and Analytics but won’t give you the permission (or funding) to do a project to show them the value. If I could get a show of hands for those of you who see this, I know a lot of you would be raising them right now.

The fearful executives don’t have the courage to step into this brave new world that so many are now embracing. It is frustrating to have executives around who don’t recognize that running a data-driven business, with outstanding analytics, is good for business. It is your job as “green people” to constantly evangelize, market and sell the value of programs to these fearful or non-understanding executives. Trying to get funding for a Proof of Concept might be a good place to start.

It’s a topic for another article on another day, but there are things you can do to help justify and show value, including assessments of your current situation and a roadmap to the future based on a proposed analytics investment. Maybe that will be my next article.

In Chapter 6 of Wayne’s book there is a “Checklist for a New Analytical Sponsor.” Check it out—that is likely a good tool for many of you as well.

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