Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee wayFor me Bruce Lee is one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, revered across the globe and in China especially. He was instrumental in popularising the Kung Fu movie genre and devised his own martial arts philosophy, Jeet Kune Do (The Way of the Intercepting Fist), by combining his favoured parts of different rigid styles into his own art of “fighting without fighting”.

Jeet Kune Do is a paired back style of martial arts that puts the emphasis on simplicity, flexibility and defence. Lee said you should “be like water”, be fluid, be confident, and don’t hesitate.

I’ve always loved the concept behind Jeet Kune Do, the idea that you cannot always plan for what is to come; instead you must be prepared to react to (or better still, try to predict) what is to come and then respond to it.

You can ally this philosophy to most aspects of life and adopt an attitude of adaptability in everything you do. In BI this is especially important and the more experience I gain designing and building data solutions the more clearly I see it.

Every time I encounter an executive with grand plans that he or she simply will not budge from; every developer I see who cannot think outside the box; every end user I meet who refuses to see the bigger picture; each time I battle against Mr QA who wants the whole design fully documented and signed off up front. In each of these instances I think of Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do.

What would Bruce Lee be like as a BI Guru? Can his philosophies on life and the principles of Jeet Kune Do be applied to BI and the successful implementation of BI projects? I think so.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory”

Keep it simple is the message when it comes to building effective BI solutions. There are no prizes for the most colourful scorecard or the dashboard that uses the most components.

“To me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way.”

Be it a lone dashboard, a report or suite of reports, or a full blown multi-faceted BI application if you over-complicate things you are asking for trouble.

At some point your solution will need to be handed over for support so it needs to be easily understood. Either that or your documentation will need to rival Tolstoy for word count.

“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.”

Keeping it simple will also make your life much easier. There will always be some complex areas but these should be pushed as far back to source as possible. The front end solution should effectively be a simple window onto the underlying data.

All too often I see developers who see it as a challenge to prove how technical they are or how well they know their chosen tool. They will try to use every element of the tool and try to implement a design that only they understand. This does not make them big and clever; it makes them, as Bruce Lee says, fools.

“The happiness that is derived from excitement is like a brilliant fire — soon it will go out.”

In the same way business users can be an utter nightmare once they see the bells and whistles of any particular data visualisation tool. They will want gauges (*shudder*) and 3D pie charts (*quake*) and traffic lights and maps and all colours of the rainbow. And you will find yourself in endless discussions about the precise shade of aubergine that should be used.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“Meaning is found in relationship”

Always keep context in mind. What good is a pie chart without some context? So you have 90% market share but how much is that market worth? 90% of a £100 market is not as good as a 1% share of a £100m market.

All measures need some context to make them meaningful. What are you measuring against and what is the baseline, or the target, or the average?

There should always be a relationship between the measure and its context.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“Life is better lived than conceptualized”

Start to get it built and see where the development cycle takes you. Too often I see a project stall at the start and then be overcome by analysis paralysis.

Every interested party (and some disinterested parties) will be consulted to ensure all bases are covered. The result will be a set of user requirements that more resemble a wish list for Santa.

“Balance your thoughts with action. If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”

BI development has become more agile and this is good. Businesses are beginning to realise that they can’t know it all at the start and that the journey will be one of discovery.

How many times have you had the business pull your solution apart only to discover the numbers are correct and it was them that didn’t understand their own data?

“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.”

Prototyping is often the key to delivering a successful BI solution. Provision should be made in the plan for prototyping so that potential banana skins (and showstoppers) can be unearthed early.

Meaningful and voluminous test data need to be provided as soon as possible for prototyping to occur. Business users should be involved in the prototyping stage analysis if possible. No amount of documenting of technical specifications can match the value of true prototyping.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“A goal is not always meant to be reached…”

“…it often serves simply as something to aim at.”

Set achievable targets and take it step by step. The big bang approach rarely works and leaves no room for manoeuvre.

“A fight is not won by one punch or kick. Either learn to endure or hire a bodyguard.”

 A well planned project that is broken down into a set of achievable goals will always have more chance at success than a big bang project.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“The truth is outside of all fixed patterns…”

“…all fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability.”

Be flexible. Unexpected obstacles and challenges will arise and you must be able to respond and adapt to them. Don’t be afraid to change course. Don’t shy away from changing requirements, from decreasing (or increasing) scope.

Too often the business lead will cling to the original requirements, often because he or she has staked their reputation on it.

“Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”

Agile BI means exactly that; the ability to be nimble in development and react to new discoveries that change the game. Bruce Lee said we should “be like water”, it is one of my favourite quotes.

“Obey the principles without being bound by them.”

It is true that there are certain principles to bear in mind when it comes to BI but they should never be a straightjacket.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless…“

“…and add what is specifically your own.”

What kind of person makes a good BI developer?

In my opinion you MUST enjoy your work and have an aptitude for it. You must be adaptable and open to change and you must always be prepared to learn and to keep pushing yourself forward.

Learn from others but be yourself. Read books and scour the internet for good examples of data visualisation techniques. You can never stop learning and will never know it all; the world moves too fast to keep up.

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.”

But always let your work be your own. There is greater pride and satisfaction in your own creation than one stolen or plagiarised. Find your influences from everywhere. If it works, don’t change it, adapt it and make it your own.

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.”

Don’t be scared of asking questions, no matter how silly you might think it sounds. If you need to ask it then in all likelihood it is a valid question that is worth asking. Questions stimulate debate so never be afraid of questioning anything that does not appear to be correct.

Business Intelligence the Bruce Lee way“Running water never grows stale. So you just have to keep on flowing”

Perfect your craft. If as a developer you do not consider BI a craft and are not fascinated by data then you are in the wrong job and most likely find this article complete tosh.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once; I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

It takes practice to become good at anything and BI is no different. There are no shortcuts to success; competence is allied to experience and experience comes from practice. When you have created fifty dashboards you can begin to consider yourself a capable dashboard developer.

“There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

If you stand still you go backwards. I’m frequently amazed by good Business Objects developers who can’t write SQL or have no clue how to FTP or don’t understand star schemas. They can knock up a whizzy Webi report in no time but are capable of little else.

I like to keep adding strings to my bow* and although you don’t want to become a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ you can never know too much.

“Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

After more than a decade in the BI sphere I see the world is still turning at a rapid rate of knots. A fresh era of Mobile BI has been born as Rapid Agile BI is taking root and a new generation of business-centric Interactive Visual Analytic tools are gaining a significant foothold in the SMB market.

Keeping up with it all is a constant struggle but a thoroughly absorbing one. To keep up with the relentless change you need to be like Bruce Lee; you need to be like water.


* a colleague once made a classic remark on being told by his boss that he should keep adding strings to his bow in order to get a pay rise – “if I add any more strings to this bow I’ll be playing a harp!”.

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