Listen, document, verify, analyze… Repeat!

In my many visits to a wide array of companies, I have noticed a common theme amongst fellow programmers, analysts, and statisticians. After years of lengthy study and practice to become expert at their area, they often express frustration and consternation for those who are less focused on the effective and proper use of data in decision-making. Your potential customers in the various areas of the business often appear to make decisions with minimal use of analysis or even data points, sometimes appearing to ignore or misunderstand your work available to them. Many of these “gut” people in the business are managers, entrepreneurs, or MBA’s.  They are frequently much more willing to take on the risk of using a very simple analysis to make big decisions.   This doesn’t mean they like it that way, they are often forced to face the fact that time is money and lack of prompt action can be very costly versus staying the current course.   This is where you can come in with just a few more skills and really become a star…

There is a very tried and proven  adage in carpentry, “measure twice and cut once.”   I would propose a new one for data analysis, data warehousing, business intelligence, etc.- “Listen, document, verify, and then analyze.   Repeat”   Think of all of the reports and analyses that just collect dust and are rarely used.   How do you make sure your time is spent on vital work?   “Listen, document, verify, and analyze.   Repeat.”

My challenge to each of you is what can be learned from the  average customer and how can you more effectively enlighten and help them reach better decisions? I would posit that the greatest and most powerful skill you can practice to change the situation is to listen. You are already skilled at collecting, aggregating, combining, and analyzing data. But, do the executives and managers who think from the gut have confidence that you understand their vision, concerns, and needs? Do you really listen and try to understand the problem at hand before rushing back to the familiar world of data, SAS, SQL, and the tools you so dearly love?   Business users often groan that they are inundated with reports, numbers, documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.   It is a big loss in potential productivity for the data experts to run quickly back to the data without first bridging the gap between your facilities and data and the customers top needs and concerns and how to solve them.

Just as the gut people can learn a lot from data experts like you, you can learn a lot from them. The one characteristic I have observed very consistently about gut people is how much they talk and like to hear stories to inform their future decisions. You can show yourself to be much more like “one of them” if you listen and tell funny or unusual stories of relevance as well.   Even more important is basic documentation and then verification with the customer that the work you propose will be useful, understandable, relevant, and timely.

On the listening front, I have frequently observed  that the more I let other people talk, the smarter they think I am!   I believe this  occurs because I am gaining an understanding of them that most people don’t possess (I understand them, which makes me “smart”) and greatly improve my odds of being able to help them.   I  try to  use this principle of focused listening throughout my work. I have often found that   even  “very difficult” people became my allies, sometimes very powerful ones, just through understanding their true needs and how to address them directly.   An added bonus is the fact that people are usually  much more open to advice once  they are  allowed to talk until they felt truly heard and understood.  

Of course action needs to be taken, analysis performed, and insight still needs to be produced!   The key  is to spend 3-4 times the typical effort on the critical issues and ignore much of the secondary work (work that may have  seemed critical before really listening, documenting, and verifying.)   When you can focus on the key issues, you can spend more time on the  key analyses, maximize the use of  the right data, and work hard at making the key facts very clear and easy to understand instead of being buried under mountains of reports, graphs, and statistics.

Here is a brief list of some practical rules to better understand people and make them feel understood and heard in your everyday data adventures:

1) After they conclude very important or relevant points, briefly restate their concerns, needs, and position to make sure you correctly understand their position. This is a key to making them feel understood and a check on your listening.

2) DON’T bring your computer to the meeting and open it up unless it is truly needed in your interaction with them. Instead, take occasional notes in a notebook and use the whiteboard if need to illustrate points.

3) Remember it is usually better to not give an immediate answer even if you think you have it. Refer to rule 1 before providing “the answer.”

4) Keep eye contact the majority of the time they speak and that you speak. If this makes you uncomfortable, look at their nose. They won’t notice the difference unless you are really close to them.

5) Upon concluding your discussion, restate the next steps you will take and confirm this is what they believe to be appropriate. Believe me, when you return or e-mail the results, they will be much more interested in what you have done.

6) If you e-mail important results or analysis, always follow-up with a call or in-person quick check to make sure they understand and have what they need from your work.

7) Remember, the gut people almost always control the money and the direction of the company. The better they understand you and feel understood by you, the more you can help and influence your company- ultimately moving ahead to greater responsibility and influence.

Stay tuned to this blog  for some more  suggestions in this area!

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