Data Analytics Can Drive Startups in the Right Direction

Guest post by Xan Tanner, co-founder of Panorama Education.

When you walk into the offices of Panorama Education, you immediately see the two most important forces aligning us as a team hanging on our walls: our values and our performance metrics dashboards.

Panorama’s values are the “North Star” for the everyday decisions we make. These statements, such as “Provide equal and equitable access for all schools” and “Focus on impact” represent the philosophical underpinnings of who we are as a team, and act as a reminder for what we should prioritize.

On an adjacent wall hangs a TV with a rotating screen of our company-wide performance metrics dashboards. These numbers are less permanent than our values, but potentially even more aligning.

Panorama Education works with 6,500 schools to collect and use data in areas that are traditionally hard to measure, like school climate, family engagement, and social-emotional learning. As an organization, one of the central premises of our work is that data can help people improve processes and structures and can spur professional growth for individuals and teams.

Goals Have Measurable Data Attached

We bring the same mentality to our own processes and systems as a startup. The most frequent engagement we have as a team with our full data tool belt is tracking progress towards our goals. Every goal set at Panorama is required to have a measurable piece of data to track our progress towards it. That data can range from the minute (the number of data scientists we will hire this month) to the expansive (the number of people who will visit our reports). This applies particularly to our company-wide goals.

For example, as we sent tens of thousands of reports to educators this spring, one of our company-wide goals was to help those educators take action from their data. We focused on several different product metrics to serve as indicators towards that goal.

Pulling these different data sources together, our colleague Sejin Mong used these metrics to chart our progress toward the goal at Panorama’s weekly team meeting. Sejin, a former data coach for the Boston Public Schools, guided and evaluated our performance and progress, and facilitated others taking those steps as well. Frequently over the course of the spring, Sejin helped the team engage with that data to arrive at a better understanding of how to improve those metrics.

Going beyond our company-wide goals, we believe strongly that every person at Panorama should see our real-time performance on the metrics we deem crucial to our success. From how many people are using a certain new product feature this week to how many schools we work with, data and other key indicators inform every goal, every decision, and every status update.

Just as our values are a reminder of who we are as organization, the dashboards are a reminder of how relevant, contextual data should drive everything we do.

Focus on the Data that Matters Most

It is amazing how many times we’ll wrestle with a complicated problem, and just by looking at the different indicators affecting that problem, we will immediately shine a light on a solution. In the words of Y Combinator founder, Paul Graham, “Merely measuring something has an uncanny tendency to improve it.”

Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned is that tracking data associated with our goals means we will take action on it. We do have to be mindful of Campbell’s Law–that over-reliance on a single measure potentially results in the inherent corruption of that measure–so approaching this work with restraint and thoughtfulness is crucial.

There is also a desire to measure everything, but that will leave you stretched thin as a team. The key is to focus in on the data that matters most to the problems you are solving. When you do that everything becomes a lot more clear.

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Xan Tanner is co-founder and president of Panorama Education, a Boston-based startup that helps teachers and administrators use data from social-emotional measures and surveys of students, parents, and teachers to improve student learning. Before founding Panorama, Tanner worked on the coaching staff of the Yale University men’s basketball team as the head of analytics. For more information visit @PanoramaEd on Twitter. 

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