Deep Work for Data Teams

There’s a particular kind of work that’s hard to appropriately prioritize — things that are important but rarely urgent.

Here are some examples for analytics teams:

None of these activities are important and urgent, as long as things are going well for your team. If you neglect them for long enough, however, your team and your internal customers will feel the impacts.

Documentation, for example, is easy to bump from one day’s to do list to the next. It’s rarely important enough to stop everything and prioritize. If it’s not done well, the team will see the impacts in slower onboarding, trouble learning new skills, slow transfer of knowledge, and failure to leverage new tooling or methods.

It’s easy as a leader to say that your team is empowered to make time for learning, documentation, or other important but not urgent work. In practice though, we noticed that we were struggling to actually do these tasks, week in and week out. Deep work blocks started as a one day trial that we’ve scaled up into a larger experiment.

What is a Deep Work Block?

Deep work blocks are a great solution to schedule the important but not urgent work to make sure it gets done. The social aspect of doing them as a team provides built in accountability and prevents urgent tasks from sneaking in.

A solid block of time — a half day or a full day — provides the focus that makes deep work effective. You have time to think deeply, get lost, get off track, find your way, and get uncomfortable. Deep work is effective for activities where you have to learn a new tool and then use it. These are hard to accomplish in slices of time between meetings.

A deep work block should be focused on a particular objective that relates to something the team needs. This focus enables the team to improve or accomplish something quickly, which creates a delightful sense of momentum.

Deep work blocks are most effective when they’re collaborative, long enough, and focused.

A Data Manager’s Playbook

This section is for managers who want to try this tactic with their team. Read on below for how to prep for a successful deep work block.

Explain the Why

Connect what you’re doing in the deep work block to the mission and values of your team. It’s important to articulate that this work is still meaningful and explain how you want the team to engage with it.

This is especially important for unexciting deep work, like updating documentation, adding tests, or cleaning up technical debt.

Test Drive the Tools

Whether it’s you or someone else, test drive anything the team doesn’t yet understand to ensure it fits your needs and goals. Prepare the ‘hello world’ experience of your deep learning day carefully, especially if it requires new tools, new conceptual understanding, or a new process.

For example, we used the Elements of Data Science Google CoLab Notebooks by Allen Downey for our Python deep work day. Before we committed the whole team to it, I had the analysts with the least amount of Python experience test drive a few of the notebooks. This also gave them a head start the day of deep work, since one of our goals was to bring Python experience up across the board.

It was not an accident that the activity I chose didn’t require installing Python to start. I wanted to ensure that getting started was smooth, easy, and didn’t involve troubleshooting.

Clarify Expectations & Define Success

Set it up so that the team understands what you expect. How open ended or exploratory is the effort? Can you team expect to show up and follow directions for some task-oriented or learning oriented deep work? Or is the goal to step back, reflect, debate, and discuss? Do you expect to leave with a deliverable or other outcome?

Making decisions by committee doesn’t work very well. As the leader, clarify your expectations up front about how the day should go.

For our documentation day, I gave each team member a folder of documentation to review and update, and a goal of getting it done by the end of the day. For our learning oriented day, the goal was just to make progress in the allotted time.

In developing new team processes, having a large team debate it out might not be a good use of everyone’s time. In that situation, I like to task one or two team members with producing a strong first draft. I tell them what I want to see addressed. The deep work block is then used to strengthen the draft with the rest of the team, and create buy-in for moving forward.

Kick Off and Close Out

On the day of, kick it off together as a team. Remind everyone of how this work connects to your needs as a team. Clarify ground rules like when to ask for help and where. Build some time to reflect into the exercise, whether it’s the day of, when everything is fresh, or later in the week. Seek feedback by asking open ended questions and being prepared to hear candid feedback about what didn’t work.

A Data Team Member’s Pitch

What if you don’t lead a team, but you still want deep work? Here’s a short guide for what to think about before you pitch this to your manager or team lead.

What do you want to work on?

This part is pretty easy — what’s inspiring or exciting enough that you want to spend time learning it?

What’s a pain point you know the team could get rid of, if you invested some time in making things better?

Write your thoughts out or explain it out loud until the concept is clear and concise.

Why is it important?

Think about what you know about your team’s direction, strategy, and challenges. Ideally your proposed deep work connects to something your manager or team lead cares about, whether that’s something they want your team to start doing or do better.

Create a clear connection between a team goal, and be ready to explain how the deep work you’re proposing will help. Ask ‘5 whys’ to make sure you’ve thought through the connection as deeply as possible. Come up with a few examples of potential wins to share with your manager.

Elevator Pitch

Finally, build out your elevator pitch. Think about the two points above. Consider practicing on a peer before you try it out on your manager. If your organization or team already has a process for proposals, consider preparing the first step in the process for review with your manager.

If your manager or lead isn’t immediately receptive, take a step back and seek to understand what you’re missing. What are their concerns? Don’t be afraid to incorporate feedback and attempt a new pitch!

Have feedback? I’d love to hear it!

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