Defining the Problem – How Savvy Data Pros Get It Right

Ever hear the phrase, “The first step is the hardest”?

While it may be a common phrase for motivational posters, it also applies to the first step in making data-driven decisions: defining the problem you’re trying to solve.

Without a clearly or accurately defined problem, time and other resources will be wasted, and you’ll be left unable to make an effective decision. Often, nailing down exactly what you’re trying to solve is more difficult than the analysis itself.

Analysts – how many times has a decision-maker come to you looking for specific metrics or data points without providing any context?

Decision makers – how many times has an analyst followed your direction, but the output doesn’t help to solve the problem?

The good news is there are steps that can be taken to avoid these common roadblocks – but it’s a two-way street. Decision makers should empower analysts to ask questions, and keep an open mind about potential analysis outcomes, regardless of any preconceived notions of which data points are the “right” ones. Analysts should ask questions, and not limit themselves to the metrics or analysis methods originally proposed. This will provide an environment in which the analysis plan can be structured to solve the question, not just spit out the data points requested.

Easier said than done, huh? As a best practice, use the questions below to guide conversations around defining a problem. Analysts should be prepared to ask these types of questions, and decision makers should be prepared to answer them. Both groups should be prepared to potentially adjust their expectations based on the outcome of the conversation.

1. What is the problem you’re encountering, and what is the context around it?

2. What decisions would you like to make based on the outcomes of the data analysis project/request?

By collaboratively defining a problem, analysts and decision makers will make the first step in data-driven decision making that much easier. It will lead to less wasted time, and more effective, strategic decisions. The first step is usually the hardest – but it doesn’t have to be!

For more strategies, techniques, skills, processes, and models on this subject, along with training for influencing stakeholders, register here for our new two-day course Data-Driven Decision Making. And don’t forget to subscribe to this blog by using the form at the top-right of this page!

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