Action Verbs for Thinking People
It’s very easy for us analytics consultants to get typecast as quantitative back office data junkies whose value to our clients is proportionate to the volume of numbers we crunch and the things we think about. Perhaps some of us find that role comfortable. At times, I do. But the best in our profession do more than just crunch and think; they take action. In this blog, I want to share my observations about those key actions, in the hopes others will share their thoughts to develop a collection of useful reminders about what we analytics consultants do for our clients. In sharing publicly, I also hope to impose on myself some professional accountability to put action behind the words and ideas I post, with others’ responses being timely reminders and new perspectives to inspire me.
My daily mantra is Facilitate, Calculate, Illuminate. I recently inserted this mantra and a supporting graphic into our corporate literature after observing these three actions to be the secret sauce that differentiated my colleagues and the best in our industry. Sure, the analytics icons have developed some pretty nifty algorithms for some pretty tough problems, but I maintain that their actions, more than their algorithms or deep thoughts, are what make them top tier consultants.
Here’s how I hope to apply their example, reminded by my analytics mantra.
Facilitate – clarify the issue at hand for all parties. Help clients and other stakeholders develop a better understanding of the situation they’re facing – the decision, the alternatives, the possible outcomes, the goodness/badness of the outcomes, the uncertainties and risks, and how we propose to address the situation (because they should “get it” if we want them to embrace what we do). The means to facilitate a better understanding varies by issue and stakeholder dynamics (e.g., location, culture, accessibility, time available, quality of data, appetite for analytic methods). A facilitated conference, a survey, interviews, white paper summarizing literature review, or a variety of other means might be appropriate. We should help our clients clarify what they really want to achieve and what are the influences and obstacles along the way. We put meaning behind bumper sticker banter. Example: Suppose “Right Person, Right Time, Right Place, Right Cost” is the Human Resource Department’s vision, and they want our help in achieving it. I need to work with stakeholders to help determine how we will know the wrong person, wrong place, too early/late, too expensive, and to realize that the underlying issue is that there are tradeoffs to be made among these objectives. We need to facilitate an understanding of the preferences among all these “right/wrong” outcomes. A mentor once told me, “Define the problem, engage stakeholders, and then define the problem again, because you were probably wrong the first time.” “Facilitate” brings an understanding of the issue, the players, and the influences, and lays the foundation for a successful consulting engagement.
Calculate – do the right math, do the math right. At our core, we apply quantitative methods to derive rational defensible insights for our client. After facilitating an understanding of the issues, we need to make choices about what analytic approach we take based on data quality, time available, and tools available as primary considerations. This is choosing the right math. Remember to assess our client’s appetite for analytics details and their desire to be involved in every step. Some might not value a computationally sophisticated approach to quantitative optimality, preferring instead a satisficing solution that all stakeholders helped develop and came to embrace passionately. For others, the reverse might be true. Similar to my HR department scenario above, we need to weigh multiple considerations when choosing the “right” analytic methods. Once we choose the approach (do the right math), we must apply the science with the diligence and computational proficiency (do the math right). Verification and validation with test cases, peer review, independent review, and client review help confirm we have done so. “Calculate” links factors, data, dynamics, and decision aspects of the issue in a way that provides traceable, repeatable, and rigorous results.
Illuminate – highlight key findings. Let’s be honest. We have all probably delivered a technical briefing that brings furrowed brows and dark clouds of doom and despair into a room of staffers who realize the decision maker does not understand what we just presented so brilliantly. (The opposite scenario can occur, too. Have you ever given a conceptual presentation to the decision maker who wants to paw through spreadsheet data tables with you?) Not you? Well done. You realized we are invited (hired, tasked) to help because there was some dark murky issue or uncertainty that required an analytic perspective to help the client see a path to a better future. We deliver value by illuminating key points and removing some of the opaque layers shielding the decision maker’s view. We need to choose how we convey what we learned, and do so in a compelling way. We want to see the light bulb appear above our clients’ heads when they “get it”, but we won’t see it. If we hear “Good stuff. Thanks, we can work with this” and feel a firm heartfelt handshake, then we probably turned on the light. “Illuminate” translates technical results in actionable insight for the decision maker – that’s why he asked for help to begin with.
Facilitate, Calculate, Illuminate… action verbs for us thinking people. Thanks to my mentors and colleagues, whose example I admire and hope to emulate.