6 min read

The Quick Path to Winning with Data and Dashboards

By Jon Thompson on August 11, 2022 8:23:26 AM MDT

In their podcast episode, How to Quickly Get BI Wins, Blue Margin CEO, Brick Thompson, and VP of Delivery Operations, Caleb Ochs, walk through the shortest path to accelerate growth with data analytics and dashboards. 

Step 1: Download Power BI Desktop (for free)

Power BI Desktop is the lowest barrier to entry for anyone looking to get started with BI reporting; all it takes is a simple download at powerbi.microsoft.com. For 15 consecutive years, Microsoft has been positioned as a leader in Gartner's Magic Quadrant for Analytics and BI Platforms (Gartner, 2022). Microsoft has a multitude of free training resources and an extensive Microsoft Power BI community to support skill development.

The person tasked with deploying dashboards for their company is likely to have some experience working in Excel. They might even be an Excel guru. If that’s the case, learning to use the code language of Power BI - DAX functions - will come quickly. DAX is similar to the formulas used in Excel, and even advanced DAX can be learned with some self-study.

So, get a free download of Power BI Desktop and start getting familiar.

Step 2: Connect Power BI to Your Data Sources

In order to build your first report, you’ll need to connect to a data source. Through Power Query, a simple data extraction tool in Power BI, you can connect to Excel files, databases, software systems like Salesforce and NetSuite, and online services such as Excel, Text/CSV, XML, SQL, or any API (Application Programming Interface, or the connection point that software systems provide to get at the data). (Bothma, 2022). Determine which source contains the data most likely to have the biggest impact on your business, and start there. Here is a useful Power BI Tutorial for Beginners.

Step 3: Determine the Business Need and Stakeholders

Before building anything, it’s important to start by determining what business outcome you want to improve, and the stakeholders responsible for performance toward that goal. Goal setting involves both the will to change and the way to change. Researcher Kenneth Nowack recommends thinking of goal setting “as having five options – stop doing something, start doing something, do less, do more, or do differently (Nowack, 2021). Business goals are often tied to an acute issue or opportunity. Where are you constrained? What opportunities are sitting stagnant? Be specific. For example, “increase employee utilization by 2%” or “reduce cost per sales lead by 15%.”

Once the goal is identified, work backwards to determine the leading indicators of that goal. In other words, what are the key metrics that will allow the stakeholders to quickly understand whether or not that goal is on track and how they can improve? For example, “employee hours logged by day” or “marketing costs.” 

A good report will give insight into a metric that is trending off track, but a great report allows you to drill down and explore why you're off track. For example, if expenses are up 15% from last month, the logical question is, “Why?” Which then leads to, “Which location? Which accounts? What transactions?” A great report will lead you through that natural narrative, like a flowchart. Mapping the report user's natural line of questioning becomes a kind of storyboard for a high-impact dashboard that helps them determine where to focus their time and effort.

Now you're ready to build a report.

Step 4: Build a Report and Iterate

After building the report, it should be published to Power BI Service (it's easy) so all the stakeholders can access it. Power BI Service is only $10 per user, per month. So, if three individuals need access to the report, it will cost $40/mo (the report builder needs a license, too), a nominal fee for improving visibility and alignment.

Then, give stakeholders a timeframe of 3-5 days to use and vet the report (in industry parlance, this is called UAT, or user acceptance testing). Once the users graduate from planning to using the report in their day-to-day work, they'll discover new insights that will make the report even more useful. Ask for their feedback and incorporate it.

Consider Whether to Engage an Outside Partner

While we've outlined the basic steps for successful dashboards, it’s fair to assume that not every business has the capacity to develop BI internally. The most important consideration when evaluating an external partner is to look for a resource that will spend time understanding your business from the inside out, rather than taking orders. A true partner should even challenge your assumptions to ensure you achieve the goal you're after. 

A few red flags to watch for when researching a vendor:

  • A vender who says, "Tell us what you want, and we'll build it."
  • A vendor who insists an elaborate back-end system needs to be in place before report development can begin. (Elaborate builds will delay the report execution and ROI. Getting wins early and often is essential to getting adoption and making the shift to data driven.)
  • A vendor who is a sales channel for a particular technology. You need to know if they're incentivized to push you in a certain direction.

Microsoft offers a Power BI partner database with 483 vendors. You'll find Blue Margin listed there as a Gold Partner for both data engineering and dashboard development.

About Us: Blue Margin helps private equity and mid-market companies quickly organize their data into dashboards, the most efficient way to turn strategy into action, and create a culture of accountability focused on growth and profitability. We call it The Dashboard Effect, the title of our book and podcast. Our mission is to accelerate your value creation plan.

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For Further Listening:



For Further Reading:


 Bothma, Joleen. (2022, April 14). Power BI Tutorial for Beginners. Datacamp. https://www.datacamp.com/tutorial/tutorial-power-bi-for-beginners#!

Manis, Kim. (2022, March 25). Microsoft named a Leader in the 2022 Gartner® Magic Quadrant™ for Analytics and BI Platforms. Microsoft Power BI Blog. https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/blog/microsoft-named-a-leader-in-the-2022-gartner-magic-quadrant-for-analytics-and-bi-platforms/

Nowack, K. M. (2021). Hacks for Effectively Setting and Reaching Goals. TD: Talent Development, 75(5), 72–74.

Jon Thompson

Written by Jon Thompson

Jon Thompson is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Blue Margin Inc. An author and speaker, Jon sheds light on how businesses can take advantage of a revolution in business intelligence to become data-driven and accelerate their success.