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Episode 212: Data Therapy and Evolving Your Offers—with Shelby Chartkoff

Deb Zahn: Hi. I want to welcome you to this week's episode of the Craft of Consulting Podcast. So, on this episode, we are going to talk about what it means when you're working with clients and you have to help them understand and act on data. And so I'm going to be talking with someone who calls herself a data therapist, Shelby Chartkoff, who is going to explain what that means and how she does it. And as a bonus, we're also going to dive into how she constructed the offers that she makes to her consulting clients, and how she's been able to evolve those over time as she sees what she does in the world and who actually pays for it and wants to work with her. So, lots of great stuff in this episode. Let's get started.

Hi. I want to welcome to the show today, Shelby Chartkoff. Shelby, welcome to the show.

Shelby Chartkoff: Thank you, Deb. Good to be here.

Deb Zahn: So, start off. Let's tell my listeners what you do.

Shelby Chartkoff: Sure. So, my company is Fruition Analytics, and I provide data strategy and innovation advisory services for organizations in the healthcare sector, which we both love. And that covers a mix of payers, provider systems, technology, service providers, startups. What my clients all have in common is that they're bridging into something new for them. So, they're innovating in some way. They're building new products or creating innovative initiatives for their organizations in which whatever they've established already for their data and their methods isn't going to get them there. And so that requires bringing in some new thinking and some new ideas, and I help them do that.

Deb Zahn: Love it. So, even though you and I are both consultants in the healthcare space, and we both love data, and we're going to nerd out about that because you're talking about change and innovation, it applies to any type of consultant. So, even though we're going to get giggly about data, it's OK because it still applies to everybody, but we can't help it. Data is fun and sexy, right?

Shelby Chartkoff: It is. And I think in general nowadays everything is changing so much, let's face it. And so all of our clients are facing brave new worlds on the daily. And so really dealing with change and the anxieties around change, and all of that are relevant I think for all of us.

Deb Zahn: 100%. Yeah, I'd love that. Well, and so this leads to my first question, which is you call yourself, and it makes me so happy every time I see it, a data therapist, which probably, for a lot of people going, "Data? But data's just facts and figures." Why the therapist part of it? Why is it you call yourself that?

Shelby Chartkoff: I'm glad you asked. I've worked with organizations in data for really, I don't know, around 20 years now, something like that, is that data is such a human-facing area. And really, when it comes to how data is being used, we're using data in human systems. And for that to have an impact, you have to understand how it's going to be used and how humans are going to make decisions around that and bring that all together.

And what I'll also say I found is that data can be triggering for folks in organizations. And you're laughing. And this will get to the second part of why I think this is helpful language, and why I decided to just be open with it, is because if you've had the kinds of experiences that lots of people in the organizations, the kinds of organizations that we work with, Deb, have had with data, it's one of those if you know, you know, right?

Deb Zahn: Yeah.

Shelby Chartkoff: So, the fact that you pick up on that and say, "Oh yeah, data therapy. Have I ever seen a situation that needed some of that?" That tells me something about you and the work and where you sit in those processes, it tells me that you know.

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah.

Shelby Chartkoff: And as a consultant, I want that kind of signaling. I want to be bringing that expertise that I have in sifting through and unpacking those convoluted layers in these processes to bear. I want to be working with folks on those problems. I don't want to be setting up someone's architecture if I can help it. That's not where's the best use of my expertise. So, by signaling that and having people respond, that helps me get to work on the right problems easier.

Deb Zahn: I can remember being in all kinds of different groups where either they measure nothing because they don't really want to have accountability, they don't want to see what their performance is. Or they measure so much that it doesn't tell them anything. But when you find the sweet spot between the data and the people and it's all going to work together, so they actually use it to do the things that they want to do in the organization, then gorgeous things happen.

Shelby Chartkoff: Gorgeous things happen.

Deb Zahn: It's not a naturally-occurring phenomena.

Shelby Chartkoff: Right. One of the common complaints I'll hear from clients is they'll say, "We try to work with analytics teams, and they go off and everything takes too long. And then they come back and what they give us isn't actionable."

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Shelby Chartkoff: Well, actionability does not typically happen by accident. You have to design it. And to design it in, you have to create a context where the right kinds of conversations can happen. And for folks to take action, even if the data might look actionable, they have to be primed to believe that that data can be actioned, that it should be actioned, that it's reliable, that it's meaningful, and that we've already set some expectations around that. So, one of the other problems you might find, you might be able to speak to this, is where we think we've set how we're going to measure things or what models we're going to use. And then somehow the data comes back, or we're testing out a new innovation initiative, and then we just keep moving the goalposts a little bit.

Deb Zahn: I'm laughing with them because, yeah, I've seen that.

Shelby Chartkoff: With all love, right?

Deb Zahn: Sure, yeah.

Shelby Chartkoff: It's one thing. And I think more and more healthcare organizations are at this point now. For a while, organizations could tell themselves, "Oh, if only we set up the warehouses, if only we now advance to some new cloud infrastructure, if only we pool all the data into some new data lake type of environment, then we'll be able to get the value." I want to say that that is all relevant; that's all important. All of that work is not for naught, but it doesn't inherently prepare you to do the work of being more data-driven.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And you mentioned people can get triggered by data. Organizations can get triggered by data. Say a little bit more about that because I, of course, know exactly what you're talking about because I've seen it. But give an example, obviously not naming the client, of where once they figured out what the data they want to look at, and then they look at it and it's not what they hoped it would be. What comes into play, such that being a data therapist is actually a beautiful thing to be.

Shelby Chartkoff: Yeah. A lot of organizations, generally, and this applies to healthcare organizations as well, struggle with psychological safety. And that is fed into because these organizations are so complex, they're often siloed. And in order to do your piece of things well, you don't necessarily understand how all the other players and pieces are working. And so what it ends up meaning is that if you're not consciously facilitating certain kinds of conversations around data and around how the larger phenomena that the data representing are working, that you're going to see the data and it's going run you right smack into those differences of ideas about how things work, of what should take priority or of value.

Oftentimes, the data will say something that you and your team have been trying their hardest, but then at the same time, you won't get the results that you want. Or a number could be interpreted in a way that's not really charitable or can be taken out of context because you're looking at one number, but you're not diagnosing what's underneath that. And so you can have organizations that are prone to, what's the saying, throw the baby out with the bath water.

Deb Zahn: That's right. Or point fingers and get into the blame game.

Shelby Chartkoff: Exactly. Exactly. And totally understandably, everyone's just trying to do what they can do in the settings that they're in. And so again, data can be blindsiding. It can send conversations off the rails, all sorts of things if you haven't laid the right groundwork and you haven't set your culture up for having the kinds of conversations with it that you need.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, so what I love about everything you're talking about, and I think it's true with data and I think it's true outside of data, somebody could be doing IT. And guess what? You could be an IT therapist as well because it's still in human systems. And once you're in those human systems, you aren't ignoring the humans because if you do, you do it at your own peril and you do it the peril of the results you're trying to help the client achieve. And so always remembering the people part of it and having the types of skills that come along with the people part, I mean, that takes a good consultant and makes them great. And beyond that, makes them highly, highly marketable because that's not a typical combination that I've certainly seen with a lot of data folks.

Shelby Chartkoff: Yeah. Well, and I want to say, I think that there are data consultants out there that really focus purely on some technical elements. And I'm sure you can make a living that way too, but you have to know if you're going to make those kinds of choices in your consulting practice where your edges are and what's in that gap.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Shelby Chartkoff: Because if you are not filling that gap, if you are not making those connections and those connections aren't being made by a counterpart inside your client's operation, and let's face it, most clients don't have those people or the bandwidth, one or the other. If you are not figuring out how those edges are impacting your work, you're not going to get those results. So, you need to account for it somehow. You either need to build it into who you partner with or what kinds of projects you take on. Or, I would argue, I think life is a lot more fun if you can really invest and pay attention to those processes and build that into your own practice.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And you brought up psychological safety, which is a big one. So, generally thinking of psychological safety in an organization is people being able and willing to say the things that need to be said out loud without fear of repercussion. And unfortunately, psychological safety is not as prevalent as we would like it to be. But if you're doing any type of work as a consultant and you see that there is not psychological safety and you are not the right person to do that, just as you're saying, then, well, they don't have it. Because if they did, they would be a psychologically-safe organization.

So, then you have to somehow figure out, as you said, how are you going to fill those gaps? Because if you think that it's going to work to just say to the client, "Hey, I did my piece, here," and that's going to be satisfying to the client, particularly if things blow up because of it, or people get triggered or whatever, or they don't use it, and then they're like, "See, we spent all that money on a consultant and it didn't do anything. See?" That reflects on you, whether it's a fair reflection or not.

Shelby Chartkoff: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the other thing I'll say from a data therapist perspective is that I think that we can see things as symptoms for why and how data isn't being well-used in an organization, or what their barriers are to advancing in that way. But I also have come to believe that if you blend these things together. If you take a really human-centered design approach to how you work with clients to build their data capabilities or how they're designing their product, that has data central to the value, if you bring that in, then data can also be part of the cure. It's one thing to look at an organization and say, "Oh, they've got culture problems." And certainly, you want some top-down support to really help shape culture.

But at the same time, data is something that once you have it in your world and if it's usable, it becomes part of an ongoing conversation in that business. And whatever becomes an ongoing conversation, shapes culture. And so it's the symptom, but I think it's not all of the fix. I think it can be part of the fix. And I think that by working with clients to create new conversations with data, you can actually change the shape of that organization to be healthier, to be more open to new ideas, to be more accepting of setbacks and understand how to be nimble in responding to those because they're looking at all of that now with open eyes.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And so when I've done interviews of staff and leaders at all kinds of different levels in organization, which is part of the type of consulting I do, one of the things that I hear a lot is, "We're not transparent. Decisions are made. We don't know why. So, it's always transparency, and it's always communication." Well, gee, wouldn't data be one of the first places you would look to to help solve that problem? So, if you had easy-to-understand visual data that you were sharing and you were sharing it across the organization, well now you're opening up the world of transparency in a way that you haven't before. If there's regular cadence to how it gets distributed, well now you're solving some of the communication problems that they have. To me, there's always sort of go-to things that can start to shift the culture and the ways of working within an organization. And data, in my mind, is always one of those.

Shelby Chartkoff: Absolutely.

Deb Zahn: Because if you're not doing that, then you're missing a big piece.

Shelby Chartkoff: And then to go further, if I can build on what you're saying because I'm so excited by what you're saying, is that part of how I work with clients is to take what they're doing or what they're trying to do or their product, it's a whole different variety of things that it can be. But one really consistent practice that I've evolved and customized over the years that I've done all of this is to create a map, a visual that pulls together how do we think value is created by what we're doing. What are the assumptions inherent in that? What do we believe? How strongly do we believe it, or where do we need some more information and all of that? And that becomes a visual artifact that really is telling the story of the work before you put any numbers to it.

And so that becomes something that anyone... You can just hold this up and people can say, "Oh, so here's how we think about things. But have you thought about this?" Or, "Huh, you're assuming this, but in my area, we're learning things about X, Y, Z that call that into question." And so it's a layer of shared understanding that the data then reinforces or amplifies or helps validate.

Deb Zahn: Oh, I like that.

Shelby Chartkoff: Yeah. So, that's where the facilitation element comes in, really. It's data, but it's not just, "Here's some numbers." You've probably been in a lot of rooms where someone will say, "Well, here's some numbers." And everyone sort of devolves into, "Well, how'd you get that number?"

Deb Zahn: Oh, yeah, right. Yeah, I've had those.

Shelby Chartkoff: It becomes way more about that than about what's working and what's not, and what to do next.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, they throw rocks at the methodology. Yes, I have seen that many a time. But the thing I also like about what you're saying as someone who has also been an implementer, which again is a great way to make a living as a consultant, is data becomes an important tool. But it is also what allows you to have conversations that it's good for the client to have anyway. It's good to question cross-departmental assumptions. It's good to come together on a common understanding of what's actually of value across the enterprise. Those are good conversations to have, anyway, a lot of it, and I've certainly seen in a lot of organizations, those seem like woo-woo, touchy-feely conversations. Why would we have those? But heck, if you anchor those to data, I would imagine there's more of a willingness to have those conversations because they're towards an end that people can actually taste and touch and feel because it's data.

Shelby Chartkoff: Deb, you are blowing my cover. I'm not sure I appreciate this.

Deb Zahn: Uh-oh. Did I just tell on you?

Shelby Chartkoff: Because you're so dead on. And the fact is that I know... And again, I'm a very relationship-oriented person. I'm very interpersonally oriented, and so I pay a lot of attention to how people are interacting as I go into a client engagement. And I'm uncovering as I go where there are gaps in shared understanding and all of that. And I'm not afraid to use my role. I think it's a good thing to use my role to help heal those gaps. I'm very aware that I'm doing that, and I use that place where it's like, "I'm helping you accomplish X. I'm helping you. I'm working on this data project, and I want to make sure we've got all these bases covered." The fact that it is creating clarity beyond that that people really need, I think is a bonus. Obviously, that's not the main thing that I'm doing, but I know that that's happening, and I consider that to be a good thing for my clients and for all involved.

Deb Zahn: Yes, which is why I understand why they come back to you because they get that bonus value all the time. So, for folks that are listening regardless again of what type of consulting they're doing, and they're listening to this and they're thinking, "Wow, those are some skills that I want to either further develop because I got them a bit, or I would love to be able to do these things." What are the skills that you would say, "If you go develop any skills, go develop these"? What are your sort of top pick?

Shelby Chartkoff: That's a great question. OK. Let me think. I think that facilitation skills never go amiss as a consultant. And the ability to listen and reflect back, and yet, also put structure to conversations is something that you'll use in everything you ever do. I think that beyond that, depending on what your area is, I draw a lot of the foundations of my work from evaluation theory and methods, from jobs to be done theory, and outcomes-driven innovation and various things like that, those can be more specific. But I think that really figuring out what are frameworks and structures that really relate... Human-centered design is another.

Deb Zahn: Love that. Yeah.

Shelby Chartkoff: What are structures and frameworks that relate to the kinds of problems that people have that give you ways to think about how you're going to elicit those real needs and help people get clear on them? That's another facet of consulting work that is really important. There’re so many different kinds of frameworks. There's a one-ring to rule them all of these kinds of things. Honestly, I pick from a really broad mix.

Deb Zahn: Me too.

Shelby Chartkoff: Everything that I've looked at, and I'm constantly growing... I study product management techniques and things like that. Everything I bring in, I then look at it and go, " OK..." For example, product management methodologies. Well, if the product is internal data systems, how would this work in that? And so it's really just a habit too of applying these things, applying interpersonal skills approaches into your area of work with clients.

Deb Zahn: That's right. I do the same thing as you, which is I don't think there is one ring to rule them all.

Shelby Chartkoff: I'm letting my geek flag fly there.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, of course, I noted that. I know where that came from. But my husband, who's also an implementer from way back, one of the things that we always talk about is when people get rigidly attached to models. They get into the problem of if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I prefer a toolbox approach, where if I have enough skills with those types of things, I'll know, all right, this is where human-centered design is going to come in handy. This is where this other model's going to come in handy. And to know enough about them to know when to pick and choose to actually apply them. And that gets you focused on the results and not just, how can I use my model regardless of what I see in front of me?

Shelby Chartkoff: Absolutely. Nobody needs that consultant.

Deb Zahn: Nobody hires that consultant twice, I would say that. But then the other one, and we've talked about this before, prior to the podcast, I would add two others, which are the, I don't consider them soft skills, I consider them essential skills of empathy and self-reflection, which can be developed. And I know empathy is a big one of yours. What would be your pitch for empathy?

Shelby Chartkoff: What would be my pitch for empathy? So, I completely agree that empathy can be learned. It can certainly be practiced actively.

Deb Zahn: That's right.

Shelby Chartkoff: And I think that my pitch for empathy is really that because everyone lives in a complete world of their own, you have to reach out and be able to understand and not project, but to truly be interested in what that experience is for them. What things right look like and feel like from their perspective. And really, it's about holding yourself in a place where you are open to that other reality. And by being open to all those different realities, especially as consultants, we're working in organizations that have a lot of things going on. And in healthcare, some of my healthcare work is actual user research for new healthcare innovations and things like that. And so it literally, I'm talking to health plan members and patients and things like that as well. And you have to be able to really get inside someone's experience to understand what value means for them or what actually is valuable to them. OK, that really gets to the core of my pitch. Without practicing empathy, we're going to miss what is valuable from the perspective of our clients.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And therefore, it's going to be harder to get them the results.

Shelby Chartkoff: You won't get them the value.

Deb Zahn: And without self-reflection, you may be projecting, you may not know enough to pause and know that now is a time to really practice empathy. So, that's why I always add that one.

So, this is fabulous. I do want to hit upon one last thing as we're talking because when I look at what you offer, it is so beautifully and clearly defined. And what it told me was that this is a person who knows who she's serving and the type of value that they're looking for. So, can you just give us sort of a sense of how did you define and refine ultimately what it is that you're offering as part of your consulting business?

Shelby Chartkoff: Yeah. It's a shifting landscape, but it always shifts with that same level of specificity. And maybe this is my product design mindset and service design mindset, but you want to design real offers for real people, and that I find serves me in a bunch of different ways. And first off, I think it's important, I do want to share, since we've got an audience of consultants here, that yes, I post specific ideas of my services on my website. And if you're listening to this podcast and you're thinking, "Oh, if I don't post my services on my website, that's going to be the thing that's going to get me business. That's going to be my business development." I do want to make sure everyone's clear. No, we get wrapped up and we think, oh, we have to always be doing the most.

Deb Zahn: Yeah, thank you for adding that.

Shelby Chartkoff: And consulting is relationship based. We are in the business of forming relationships with people who then want our help with things. I am no different. No one has ever gone to my website and then picked up the phone and said, "Yeah, I'd like one of those, please."

Deb Zahn: Yeah, exactly. And maybe I'll get that other one later.

Shelby Chartkoff: Yeah. That's not the point of clarifying how you work with clients and putting it out there. So, the point of doing that, first off, is for myself, so that I am clear on how I want to work with clients and how I like to work with clients. The second is that when someone who isn't already in my inner circle because once you're a client, once you're one of my people, we're just going to hang out for a good long time, but it's to help that person as we're starting that relationship. Or maybe as an existing client has referred me, or maybe I'm talking with someone and they're trying to figure out how are they going to sell this internally. It's creating a level of accessibility for those folks to get more concrete in their thinking about how we're going to work together, so that they're more prepared to have conversations with me, they're more prepared to have conversations internally.

Deb Zahn: That's right. And I could tell you thought of the human beings when you did it…

Shelby Chartkoff: Always.

Deb Zahn: ...because you were thinking about, "Yeah, who's on the other side of that?" But yeah, giving yourself the gift of clarity, as I like to call it, and then giving your clients an additional layer of clarity in this beautiful relationship that you're building with them is a perfect way to think about it. So, I do encourage people to go take a look because I thought it was really, really well done. So, if folks are listening to this and they're thinking, "Ooh, I like what she does, and I can't do that," or they know someone who needs that, where can folks find you?

Shelby Chartkoff: Sure. Well, you can find me on LinkedIn. My name is Shelby Chartkoff again, and I'm the only one. So, there's-

Deb Zahn: In the whole wide world?

Shelby Chartkoff: There is an easy method right there. And my company website is

Deb Zahn: Wonderful. And so let me ask you my last question, which I know you know is coming. So, when you're not doing these beautiful things with humans and data, how do you bring balance to your life? However it is, you think about that.

Shelby Chartkoff: Well, balance is non-negotiable for me. So, it's inherent in how I structure everything. I think we create this false tension, where we think we've got two poles, that's work and life. And I would say that I think that buying into that polarity keeps us making worse decisions for work or for business and worse decisions for life. I treat it all as a design problem, and I design my own wellbeing into every layer of that.

Deb Zahn: Very nice.

Shelby Chartkoff: And I could go into more detail. If you want to geek out, I could geek out about this stuff for a while.

Deb Zahn: You know what? I might need to have you come on another podcast and we could talk about that whole thing because I am all about constructing your life and doing that. So, if you're game, I'll have you come on a podcast another time and we can totally nerd out about that.

Shelby Chartkoff: That would be so much fun.

Deb Zahn: I'm thinking. I'm thinking. So, good. Well, I want to thank you, Shelby, so much for joining me on this podcast. You know I was going to get all giddy about this because I love this topic, but I think you brought to anyone listening to this to think through how to bring together these different pieces, either because you can do them or because you bring in somebody who compliments what you do. This is what makes for a successful consulting business and happy clients. So, I want to thank you so much for sharing all that.

Shelby Chartkoff: Oh, so much fun to be here with you, Deb. Really enjoyed this.

Deb Zahn: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Craft of Consulting podcast. I want to ask you to do actually three things. If you enjoyed this episode or you've enjoyed any of my other ones, hit subscribe. I got a lot of other great guests that are coming up in a lot of other great content, and I don't want you to miss anything.

But the other two things that I'm going to ask you to do is, one is if you have any comments, so if you have any suggestions or any kind of feedback that will help make this podcast more helpful to more listeners, please include those. And then the last thing is, again, if you've gotten something out of this, share it. Share it with somebody you know who's a consultant or thinking about being a consultant, and make sure that they also have access to all this great content and all the other great content that's going to be coming up.

So, as always, you can go and get more wonderful information and tools at Thanks so much. I will talk to you on the next episode.

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