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Delivering Insight when it really matters


I had every intention of not mentioning the Olympics or Paralympics this month, and so avoiding the inevitable bandwagon of articles capitalising upon the Team GB performance. For those of you not in the UK, the British medal haul in the Olympics far outstripped expectations, so it’s pretty much been the only topic of conversation in the last month, which makes a pleasant change to the usual doom and gloom that we Brits normally count as news.

But that said, there were several moments in the Olympics that struck me as relevant from an Insight point of view, but one in particular highlighted interesting points on delivering insight.

The scenario

This was the moment when two cyclists in the men’s keirin final in the Velodrome seemingly broke the rules. The keirin is the strange race where a man on an electric bike, called a derny, rides in front of cyclists for 5 ½ laps of the track, getting slightly faster all the time, and then when he comes off the track, the proper race starts for 2 ½ laps. This is frankly a curious set-up anyway, but the main rule seems to be that you are not allowed to overtake the very back of the back wheel of the derny until it has completely left the track in the middle of the back straight (where a white line indicates the start of the half lap).

Two cyclists in the final apparently did so just as the derny bike was leaving the track, and the gun went off, signifying a false start, and impending disqualification for whichever cyclist had transgressed the imaginary back-wheel line. From the TV pictures, it appeared incredibly marginal. One of these cyclists was the hot favourite, Briton Jason Kenny, to audible groans both amongst the many Brits in the Velodrome, and the millions watching in the UK, waiting for the News at Ten to start, which had been delayed pending the completion of the race so the BBC could show another Brit winning a medal. The other rider was the Malaysian Azizulhasni Awang, who is himself a hero in Malaysia and across Asia for winning Malaysia’s first track cycling medal at the previous Olympics.

Deploying the Insight Team

At this point, the Team GB “backroom” teams came into play. The head of GB track cycling, Ian Dyer, went over to speak to the commissaires (cycling judges) to understand what evidence there was; to be fair, track cycling does appear to be a sport where acceptance of the judge’s’ decision is accepted pretty well, so this was not the equivalent of footballers crowding the referee to pressurise them. In his interview afterwards, he explained that he was surprised the commissaires did not have a camera in the middle of the back straight, where the transgression had taken place. Reading between the lines, they were clearly extremely worried that they were about to disqualify one nation’s hero, and possibly two, in the final of the most high-profile event for the sport in 4 years, with the whole world watching, on a marginal call by only one judge with no corroborating evidence.

At this point, Ian Dyer offered his team’s services. Famously, GB Cycling has employed data analysts on its team for many years now, to record and review performances of the athletes. This has helped spot and eke out the “marginal gains” – how to improve performance by 1-2% - that has made GB Cycling one of the most successful sporting programmes for many years; it is effectively a very successful, and high-profile, optimisation programme.

Now was the time for the data analysts to come into play, although not for optimisation, but for rapid response insight. The Team GB data analysts had been recording the race as usual for their own purposes from a position in the stands above the middle of the back straight, and so had a better view than anyone else – the TV cameras were slightly offset from the centre of the straight, so, given the fractions involved, were inconclusive. Dyer and his team were able to demonstrate that neither of the front two riders under suspicion had in fact gone past the back wheel of the derny bike before it left the track. Armed with that evidence, the judges at length reinstated all riders, effectively overruling the original decision, and the race was rerun.

Incredibly, on the second attempt, the same thing happened again, this time with the German rider Joachim Eilers, regarded as the main threat to Kenny winning the race, breaking the rule. Once again, this appeared a very close call, and once again, Dyer stepped up, and offered the data analysts’ services to show the truth. They were again able to prove that Eilers had not encroached, and so all riders were once again reinstated.

The third attempt of the race ran smoothly, with Kenny winning gold – thereby becoming the joint most successful British Olympian of all time - and Awang the silver. Unfortunately for the symmetry of this story, Eilers was pipped to the bronze and finished fourth.

The Insights

I think this story gives a couple of interesting ideas on how to approach insight, and how insight teams should look to engage with other areas of the business.

1. Have an insight team!

It can save you from poor decisions. But make sure that your team has senior support, or direct board representation, so that your senior team know how to use or engage with them if they need to.

2. Make sure they are invested in the programme

Perhaps more significantly, make sure that the insight team are also invested (emotionally or, if need be, financially) in the business programme, and that they know that they are part of the wider strategy and the role they play in it. There’s nothing worse than a bored, or disengaged or frustrated analyst; they are normally highly intelligent and motivated, and so can be a huge asset if deployed in the right way – and they can become a liability if they feel excluded or undervalued. GB Cycling is perhaps the paradigm in engagement of data analysts across an organisation – they know that their role is to identify marginal gains and that can be the difference between winning and losing. Similarly, the cyclists also know this, and so know that the analysts’ support can improve their own performance. In this instance, it’s not an exaggeration to say that without the data analysts on the team, Kenny would not have won a medal.

3. Don't pigeon-hole Insight teams

I think that this example shows how insight teams themselves should look to behave themselves. Whilst GB Cycling’s analysts are there to analyse performance to identify longer-term optimisation opportunities, when the need arises, they can flip and provide specific insight or proof of performance on a particular scenario. Again, this is what many analysts do, and indeed thrive off. The opportunity for intellectual curiosity and versatility is what makes many analysts want to do the job in the first place – so insight managers need to make sure they offer a variety of tasks to take advantage of this.

4. Approach any insight challenge without fear or favour

The best analysis is focused on identifying reality and what really happened. Too often, this rule is broken by stakeholders within companies asking for insight to prove what they think they already know, or alternatively for not acting on recommendations because it doesn’t fit with what they want to do. As mentioned earlier, this is a particularly good way of creating a team of frustrated analysts, but it also means you are not responding to the truth. In this example, although the analysts worked for Team GB, the same evidence was used to reinstate both Brit and Malaysian, and perhaps more noticeably, the German and Team GB’s main rival in the event. It would have been possible for the data analysts to not investigate the second race, but that was not the aim. The aim was to establish what really happened, and to thereby allow the judges the make the right decision.

5. How Insight teams should behave

And finally, the most important part of this is how insight teams should respond in these situations. Whilst much of what analysts do is often either cyclical (analysing how events compare with other similar ones) or long-term (identifying patterns to feed into strategic programmes), there are moments when analysts need to deliver rapid insight in response to particular scenarios. In this instance, it was literally a split-second decision that needed to be assessed and responded to within minutes. Whilst the speed here may be an extreme example for most organisations, there are business scenarios that demand a greater intensity of insight provision. The launch of a new digital channel or web site is one such; this is a moment when everything that the business thought it knew no longer applies – the environment or layout is different, it has new features, and so customers use it in a different way to the previous version. It’s also not unusual to have a new type of analytics tool deployed, so comparing like-for-likes is more complex. And all this will be against a backdrop of the main stakeholders hoping that the new site is an improvement, and can demonstrate it is successful and will deliver ROI.

At times like this, insight teams need to step up. It’s not sufficient to operate at a normal rhythm during these periods; the business needs to know key facts quickly. We operate a “hypercare” process at times like this, where insight analysts are available full-time for a period immediately after the launch of a new digital channel to iron out any bugs, or to provide new reports to allow the main stakeholders to understand the basics of their new world, and to understand how customers are using it. This helps the business to recalibrate in their new world, and address any major issues that need to be addressed very quickly – in a similar way that the GB Cycling analysts could help the commissaires make the right call.