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DataIQ Member’s briefing – Should data go after moonshots or low-hanging fruit?

On the day NASA launched Artemis with plans of establishing a permanent presence on the moon, DataIQ members discussed the pros and cons of aiming for moonshots or low-hanging fruit.
Data Moonshot Project 1.jpg

What are we talking about? 

The first point discussed was defining what a moonshot actually is. DataIQ members represent a huge swathe of different industries, and ambitious – often experimental – projects mean different things to different businesses. One member from a fashion retailer stated, “For me, when I think about a moonshot, it means something that is really ambitious and really innovative – it should be radical.” This was widely agreed across the sessions and  

For some members, the terminology used to describe a moonshot is different, but the result is the same. A member from the air travel industry explained how their team uses the term North Star for what most organisations would call a moonshot.  

What can moonshots demonstrate? 

Some of the benefits of moonshots are that they can highlight individuals, teams and wider industry directions, bringing more recognition to data offices which has traditionally struggled to get noticed. One DataIQ member from a heavy goods manufacturer said, “In my experience, moonshots can be really useful for showing thought leadership, demonstrating to customers that this new approach is directionally where they want to think, identifying new trends and trying to demonstrate where the industry might be going.”  

Customer-facing businesses that are fortunate enough to be deemed “a thought or market leader frequently find customers from the public asking what is coming up next” according to DataIQ members. In this scenario, moonshots can help prepare businesses for the most strategic conversations with customers, stakeholders and prospects.  

However, there is a caveat: the danger is conflating a moonshot with what is actually producing a product. As one member explained, “I have seen a chief technology officer be removed from the organisation because they just went for moonshots. The questions surrounded how is this delivering value? And how is this going to return investment from a lot of money getting spent.” Moonshots can often develop a large amount of hype, but if the end goal of a moonshot or product development get lost and confused with each other, the expectations from stakeholders are very different.  

The value of moonshots 

There is no denying that a well-timed, well-executed moonshot can be an absolute gamechanger for an organisation, often propelling it to the forefront of their specialism. As one participant explained, “If a moonshot is delivered, it should have huge upside for the organisation. Some of the positive things about moonshots are that it can change people’s thinking or perception – it gets them out of the glass ceiling mentality.”  

Additionally, one member from a large organisation highlighted that it is possible to siphon resources into dedicated teams that solely utilise the benefits of moonshots for the business. One major benefit of this approach is that the pressures of developing moonshots are vastly different from day-to-day operations and product development meaning focus can be isolated. It is also easier to demonstrate the value of a moonshot project with this approach as the output of the group is not muddied by other non-moonshot developments of the data team. 

A moonshot can raise the profile of a data team, even before the success of the moonshot has been verified. To have the certainty and ambition to undertake a project that can completely alter the inner workings of an organisation or create a whole new revenue stream is sure to raise eyebrows and receive some spotlight. This, naturally, can cause pressure on the team, which is why effective communication and storytelling is needed to explain the process and long-term developments for non-data professionals to understand.  

Despite these prominent values, there are risks with moonshots that must be appreciated. One member from the insurance sector stated that trust is one of the most important parts of their relationship with customers and “customers trust us to move slowly, purposefully and robustly rather than chasing moonshots that can spend a lot of investment with little return.” This highlights the balance required between chasing glory with moonshots and maintaining a business-as-usual attitude that can ensure customers receive the care and products they require.  

Finding value in failure 

There are multiple reasons why a moonshot may fail, but it is not impossible to still source value from a project that did not reach its target. Multiple roundtable participants shared stories of how a change in senior management could halt moonshot development in its tracks. If the enthusiasm for a moonshot project is not supported by a key decision maker, it is likely to be scrapped or paused indefinitely.  

This led to a question of which senior member of a business would data professionals be most enthusiastic about being changed. It was agreed that chief executive officers are likely to be the most beneficial to the data team when considering the wider organisation as “CEOs set the whole culture and whole direction. Even if a team has a strong CCO and CDA, all the kit and great models, if the CEO and the organisation do not want them, you’re left without any help.” 

Additionally, unexpected developments can cause moonshots to be paused. One member of a government organisation found their moonshot project paused for months after the death of Queen Elizabeth II as their resources had to be moved elsewhere for the funeral arrangements and subsequent changing of the monarch. Of course, these types of events are once-in-a-generation and are nearly impossible to predict, but it is worth highlighting that they can impact the momentum and progress of projects. It is hoped that the project paused by the death of the Queen will be up and running again in the next few months.  

What about easy wins? 

The majority of roundtable participants agreed that there must be a balance between easy wins and moonshot projects to demonstrate the value of the data team as well as the ambition and potential for data-led decision making. However, it is through the smaller, quicker wins that a fresh data team can hit the ground running and show their worth within a calendar year. The need for quick and easy wins has been examined multiple times by DataIQ members, particularly when trying to raise the profile of the data office in the wider organisation.  

On the other hand, if a team only goes for low-hanging fruit goals, this can damage the chances of investment for a moonshot project as it can scare top decision makers in the organisation. Additionally, moonshot projects tend to take much longer to complete and demonstrate value, so if a business is used to quick wins this longer lead time could be seen as a negative.  

In the end, it was agreed that moonshots are an essential part of an ambitious and growing data programme, but they must be supplemented with easy, quicker wins. Those undertaking moonshots need to understand the importance of storytelling and explaining the process – and expectations – of a large-scale, radical project as it can be easy to lose the attention of the decision makers.  

Famously, the most ambitious moonshot of them all – the Apollo space programme – took eleven iterations to finally land humans on the moon. It takes time, trust and investment, but the success of a moonshot can drastically change the business landscape and should be embraced by businesses eager to become data led.  

Make sure you sign up to the upcoming DataIQ roundtables to get involved in peer-to-peer conversations that will improve your data journey.  

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