Somebody said to me once that if you want a job done, pay somebody to do it. Their point was that if somebody is getting paid they will throw their full efforts and abilities into getting the job done. The problem, however is when the job continues past the point of usefulness and continues for the sake of being busy. Examples abound of professions working for the sake of it – in my hometown it’s illegal to display Christmas lights in any other color than white. Granted the law isn’t enforced, but really?
I see it in my own profession all the time. Part of what we do is analyze – we figure things out by digging into the numbers, developing causal relationships and drawing conclusions about what has or will happen. It’s what we do, it’s what we’re good at and we like it. But to what end? Most times it’s because somebody asked a question or a problem was identified, but if nobody asks does it matter? Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. A lot of problems exists precisely because no questions were asked. The art of the job comes in knowing what questions need to be answered and what answers are going to have an impact.
Good analytics should influence a decision and if you already know there is no decision, the effort should match the outcome. I saw a great example recently where an analyst spent a lot of time keying numbers from a PDF file and dissecting payroll information to highlight a single employee that had gotten overpaid. The problem was the amount was immaterial, the employee had already quit and the owner was never going to do anything about it anyway because it was not his biggest priority. The analyst asked the wrong question and found an answer nobody cared about (and as an aside the real question is what failed in the process to allow the employee to work the system to their advantage).
So what drives the right questions and analytics? For me it’s materiality, priorities and situational awareness. Materiality is as much instinct as it is math. Most rational people can see when something isn’t going to have any impact. They key with materiality is to quickly confirm your suspicion and mark it for follow up. Priorities are all about communication with the client. Together you decide what’s most important and plan for getting things done. Certainly plans and priorities change, but that’s all part of the process.
Situational awareness is by far the hardest and requires one to be aware of what’s happening not only all around them but also within themselves. Situational awareness is a hard fought skill taught over time and in different situations. Stressful situations are the best teachers, but also the least forgiving. [another thought I have but can’t seem to work in is situational awareness usually starts with questions. People that barrel in without asking questions are usually not aware]. A news producer I know described her work as the combination of an interesting story, timing and mood and that an interesting itself was not enough. As for self-awareness? It tends to be innate in people (or not as the case may be), but it can be taught too. Making sure you’re not doing something just for your own satisfaction is a start.