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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

My job is to unite an incredibly diverse team. Data is our common language

Data has always been a unifying source of truth, a way teams can push past their differences to align on a goal in a universal language. The beauty of data is that it presents a clear and measurable goal, as well as a path to getting there.

My job is to unite an incredibly diverse team. Data is our common language
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In high school, I was the captain of my soccer team. It’s not as impressive as it sounds—I went to a very small school and anyone who showed up got to play. Though I was far from the most athletic, what I lacked in physical skills I made up for in leadership. I developed a knack for uncovering hidden talents and uniting players around a common goal. This quality has proven a throughline in my career as a technologist.

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When it comes to boundary-pushing tech, there’s a misconception that it starts and ends with slick processes and cutting-edge technologies.

In reality, it’s people who drive innovation, and the best work happens among diverse teams who come to the table with drastically different working styles, professional backgrounds, and ways of measuring success. The key to making progress—and the biggest challenge as a leader—is getting them all pointed in the same direction.

Enter: the power of data.

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GREAT TEAMS COME BEFORE GREAT TECH

In the corporate world, it’s easy to get stuck in silos and lean heavily on the highest-ranking employees, but often I’ve found individuals with the right mix of skill, experience, and vision are lurking in unexpected places.

For instance, I once tapped a data scientist to be the lead product architect on a holographic headset project. Why? A closer look at his career trajectory since coming out of college suggested that despite spending most of his time making dashboards, he had displayed the aptitude and capability to turn data into a tangible product. By focusing on his stats rather than his status, it became clear that he had skills that were being undervalued in his role as a data scientist. Today, he is demonstrating his true potential as the chief systems architect on our team.

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Just like in the 2011 sports drama Moneyball, in which players’ stats dictated their high degree of future success, turning to data can reveal someone’s capability and potential.

UNITED BY NUMBERS

Once your team is put together, your task becomes getting them to work together. That’s no easy feat when you’re working with cross-disciplinary teams.

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The teams I work with are incredibly diverse. Taking indoor farming to the next level requires input from growers, biologists, engineers, and data scientists—all of whom have their own verbiage, processes and metrics for success, and too many preconceived ideas about how other departments work. To break down silos, build trust, and fast-track cohesion, I give my teams a task: find the number.

The number could be anything: the amount of pixels for the right resolution, to–in my current company–the lowest amount of kilowatts it takes to produce a pound of lettuce.

Getting teams to work together to identify and agree on a number gets them to speak the same language and—more importantly—to aim for a common goal. It doesn’t even matter if the number is right. That can be corrected later. The real value is in establishing data as the common language and the source of truth that measures success.

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TELLING THE BIG STORY OVER TIME

Beyond being a tool that helps to uncover talent and unify teams, overtime data tell powerful stories that can be used to mobilize wide-scale change.

Currently, my team’s aggregate data tells a story about the lifecycle of a plant—how it behaves in a microclimate, and how achievable it is to grow nutritious local food using far fewer resources than conventional agriculture. Our current number—6.67 kW/hours per pound—is a North Star, showing what’s possible in terms of reducing the amount of energy needed to grow nutritious food indoors, and giving us a benchmark upon which to improve.

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If you expand that to the macro level, data has the potential to bring whole industries together in pursuit of meeting big challenges—reducing the impact of climate change, for example. Business leaders who are tracking data points across different companies can find mutual benefit by leveraging technologies developed by other organizations to further their own goals and effect change across whole sectors.

We can’t solve big problems without buy-in from a diverse range of stakeholders. But for all the desire we have to build diverse and inclusive teams, there isn’t a handbook on how to align different thinkers and build off of each other’s strengths. For me, data has always been a unifying source of truth, a way teams can push past their differences to align on a goal in a universal language. The beauty of data is that it presents a clear and measurable goal, as well as a path to getting there.


Edoardo De Martin is the President and CTO of CubicFarms Systems, a local-chain agtech company specializing in indoor farming technology.

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