by Joe Dery, Ph.D.
Dean of Data Analytics, Computer Science, and Software Engineering, College of IT
In today’s data-driven world, if you’re an analytics professional, it's not enough to solely rely on your technical expertise. Although building an accurate model or implementing the latest algorithm has value, it's not the only thing that matters. Even if you discover groundbreaking insights from your data, it may not be enough to drive action or create impactful change in your organization.
Soft skills matter in analytics
Soft skills like adaptability, flexibility, active listening, storytelling, and collaboration are missing (or minimalized) in many analytics programs in higher education and are essential in making an impact with data-derived insights and data science products. As a practitioner, it's crucial to understand that possessing technical skills alone is not enough to deliver results that drive business outcomes. However, by honing your soft skills, you'll be able to better communicate your findings, collaborate more effectively with your stakeholders, and adjust as the business problem evolves (which it often will!).
If you want to be a successful analytics practitioner and affect meaningful change, the key is in building, strengthening, and calibrating your soft skills.
This is where improv comes in
Improv is an acting-based art form that encourages spontaneity, creativity, and teamwork, which can help you become a better problem solver, communicator, and collaborator. By embracing individual (or group) failure and learning to think in an agile way, improv helps us to handle unexpected curveballs and adapt to changing circumstances. It also teaches us to be more present, attentive, and responsive in our interactions with stakeholders and our direct teams, improving relationships and building trust.
All too often, analyses, models, and dashboards sit on a shelf collecting dust – mainly because stakeholders don't understand them, don't see their value, or don’t know how to incorporate the insights into their daily responsibilities. Improv helps us to communicate our findings in a compelling and memorable way, engaging stakeholders and inspiring them to act. It can also help us to identify opportunities for innovation, collaborating with stakeholders to co-author solutions that deliver real benefits – the same way that actors play off each other when bringing a theatrical improv scene to life.
If you’re an analytics professional or are looking to enter the field, ask yourself this: are your soft skills where they need to be? Whether you're a data scientist, a data analyst, an analytics product manager, or an analytics leader, now is the time to see how improv can help you to embrace your creative spirit, improve your soft skills, and effect real change in your organization. Yes, this likely means stepping out of your comfort zone – but if you take this leap of faith, there’s a good chance you’ll learn valuable skills that will benefit you both professionally and personally!
I'm not just throwing out a random suggestion here - I truly believe in the power of improv. How do I know? Because I experienced it firsthand years ago. As a hands-on-keyboard data scientist, I had a natural act for coding, but when it came to presenting a compelling data story to my stakeholders, I struggled to connect the dots in a way that drove action, often over-calibrating on the technical nature of what I built – p-values anyone?
Then, I remembered some incredibly valuable words of wisdom from my master’s marketing professor about the power of improv in unleashing creativity. And let me tell you, it’s a game-changer. Improv helped me tap into my inner creativity, take risks, and engage with my audience in a compelling way. So, if you're looking to unleash your analytics potential, compliment your technical toolbelt with soft skills, and make a real impact, consider trying out improv – it may just be the missing piece you’ve been searching for!
Since my personal experience with improv, I've been a big believer in its ability to help analytics professionals hone and embrace their soft skills. While some have taken my advice and tried it out, others have been more hesitant. That's why I'm excited to introduce you to Mader James, one of our current Data Management & Analytics (BSDMDA) students, who decide to take the leap and try a local improv 101 course. I'm honored to have him share his experience with you here, so you can hear firsthand the impact that improv can have on your personal and professional growth.
Dean Dery: Prior to taking the improv 101 course, how would you have described your soft skills?
Mader James: I had some experience with speaking in front of coworkers to go over weekly meetings, but the experiences tended to be smaller and dealt with bullet-point topics. It was mainly to inform policies.
What were you hoping to gain from taking an improv course? What made you decide to sign up?
After speaking with Dr. Dery on two different occasions, he suggested taking an improv course to help improve personal interaction and storytelling skills. I really had no expectations going into the class, other than it might help with my social interactions with friends and coworkers.
Can you describe your first improv session? What was it like?
My first improv session was a little surreal. The instructor spoke about being present, failure wasn’t bad, and whatever came out during one of the games we played was the “right” answer. We played different improv games that were meant to get the class comfortable with being “in the moment” and realizing that “messing up” was part of the process.
Were there any moments during the improv course that really challenged you or pushed you out of your comfort zone?
The challenging parts for me were allowing myself to be “silly” and using my imagination. I have been so used to being an adult and playing by a specific set of rules in my life that allowing myself to play and being ok with whatever happens was very difficult for me in the first three classes.
Did you have any “aha” moments in the course?
The “aha” moment in the course that stood out to me was that it was ok to not be perfect. If there was a “mistake” made, the world didn’t end, and I wasn’t punished. It was ok to make mistakes and move on. I began to be ok with letting my imagination run free, loosening up, and being less rigid, which helped to connect to a deeper emotional part of myself.
Do you feel that improv helped you develop your soft skills? Have you changed in any way?
I feel it has helped me to be a better listener so that I can be a better problem solver by waiting to get all the information from someone as opposed to hearing parts of what they are saying while my mind is trying to come up with an answer.
After completing the course, do you feel that improv is relevant to analytics?
I feel Improv has helped me to let go of some rigidity in my thinking and allowed for creativity to come from being present in the moment. I believe this is useful to analytics because it can help you to let go, loosen up, and allow your mind to be free for those spontaneous moments of insight to happen that can fuel a better direction for problem solving.
Would you recommend taking an improv 101 course to your peers and colleagues? Do you have any advice for others who may be considering taking an improv course to develop their soft skills?
I absolutely would recommend an improv course. Not only was I changed over the course of the class exercises, but the majority of my class stated in the first session that they wanted to overcome some sort of shyness or social anxiety, and I watched people that were very shy and timid come out of their shells and light up. I believe improv can help anyone improve on their ability to be more comfortable in a group, whether that is leading a group or participating in groups or giving presentations. My advice would be to give it a try. It will help them out, and I think they would discover some really interesting insights into how they interact with others.
What’s next for you?
I am starting the Improv 200 class next week to continue on this journey of self-discovery and am continuing to work on my Data Analytics degree here at WGU.