Today I met Emory University professor Patrick Noonan at the INFORMS seminar on Essential Practice Skills for High-Impact Analytics Projects. The day included many great gems that will guide some thought processes for years to come, but an early idea was about the new nature of work and that businesses need to “figure it out as we go.” The underlying assumption is that business practices and advancements in data collection and analytics are changing at such a rapid pace that there is really no opportunity to rely on prior techniques. Of course, that’s not universally true—there are many situations where our skills and experiences are directly applicable so that some problems can be solved quickly. However, there are many complex business questions that have never before been answerable as the data and tools required to answer them did not exist. This is new territory.
The bulk of today’s discussion was about decision making processes and how to formulate a plan to answer key questions based on analytics. The advantages and limitations of existing frameworks such as SWOT and SMART were discussed, and how their inherent limitations naturally lead to the use of Issue Trees. What is the Key Question to be asked? Because the first step in the process is always situation specific, this becomes a highly customized process instead of a generic framework. Once the Key Question is agreed upon by key stakeholders, a plan of attack can be developed.
The most interesting exercise today was generating a task list from terminal questions based on the Issue Tree. After formulating the questions, we collectively created Proto-Graphs. I don’t know if Proto-Graphs is a Noonan invented term or borrowed from someplace else. Proto-Graphs are sample layouts of graphs that should be created by the data team to help answer the Key Question. The creation of these Proto-Graphs led to a significant amount of disambiguation. e.g., would a scatter plot or a histogram best represent the data? What time frame should be analyzed? What units are expected? It was surprising to me how many of the “obvious” assumptions were made differently by different team members. The process clarified the result before the expense of creating the graphic with real data was incurred. Another advantage was that our paper sketches were not dependent on the capabilities of any specific tool—our sample visualizations were not guided by what can be done. All of my new data visualization projects will use this technique.
We also discussed how to clarify the Key Question. A highlight of my day was when Professor Noonan asked to use one of my quotes. We were defining ideas to clarify the Key Question and I said that it was essential to ensure that everyone understood the true goal. When asked about this, I replied that “our biggest failures at Blue Ridge Solutions were when we delivered what the client asked for.” What’s that mean? Often in the rush to get something done, business requests are made from a starting assumption of let’s move quickly. Failure to investigate the true goal often leads to the wrong deliverable.