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Avoid the Instant Analysis Trap

The web delivers an overwhelming torrent of information all day, every day.

Just about every online survey system boasts its ability to deliver real-time reporting.

We can watch events “live” on 24-hour cable news while the talking heads explain what it all means as its happening.

We’ve come to expect that because we can get data instantly, we should be able to create meaning from it instantly. There’s a problem with this cultural expectation of instant analysis, though.

It just doesn’t work very well.

Divining meaning without time for reflection and exploration can work in only the most straightforward situations.  This is fine if we are concerned only with what is happening.  Understanding what doesn’t usually require much beyond looking at the data stream and drawing a conclusion.  Unfortunately, what isn’t usually the interesting or valuable question.

The interesting and valuable questions are “why?” and “now what?“.

Trying to answer those questions in “real-time” results in, at best, a superficial understanding of the situation and recommendations for action that may or may not be useful.  Using this level of analysis is like following a map where only the biggest land features and roads are included.   It will probably get you there, though much less efficiently than if you had the complete picture.

At worst, it completely misses less obvious relationships in the data that change the interpretation.  This is like following the wrong map.  In that case, you’re better off without the map at all.

Luckily, the solution is simple.

Build time into project schedules to allow for the necessary review and discussion of the data.

I’m not suggesting that project timelines be dragged out to include endless discussion and meetings.  In many ways, a “death by committee” approach is worse than working from a superficial analysis.

There is certainly a middle ground, which for me is finding an additional few days to a week at the back-end of project.  This is enough time to make significant improvements the final product, while still providing timely information to the client.  A better thought out and vetted set of conclusions and recommendations mean the client team can spend its time on focused action instead of running around in circles trying to figure out which of the recommendations are good.  In the end, this saves far more time than was added to the project timeline.

A recent project reminded me of this.

When it became clear that we would be delivering some bad news to the client, I wanted to make sure we communicated the findings clearly and in a way that helped them take action.  So, I pushed our team to develop the first version of the report well in advance of the due date to the client.  We used the “extra” time to circulate and discuss the findings and recommendations among the project team, which led to some excellent refinements.

These discussions were very helpful in refining the findings and recommendations to make them more clear and actionable.  The additional perspectives we were able to include also produced at least one new recommendation that the core team hadn’t thought of, but was an excellent response to the research findings.

The first version of the report was absolutely not just a draft that needed work.  This first version would be considered a good work product by most people’s standards.  The key findings from the first version all remained in the final deliverable.  One additional key finding was added, but it was really just the result of splitting one of the existing findings in two.  Most of the initial recommendations remained, but were refined and made more actionable.

By getting away from the trap of providing instant analysis and moving on, we were able to make that good report better.

Who benefits from this “extra” work?

Everyone benefits.

Our team gets the satisfaction of digging deeper and producing a better product, the client team gets insight that is more robust and includes more focused recommendations, and our company gets the reputation boost of delivering superior work.

So, the next time the client asks if you can deliver that report sooner, resist the temptation to provide instant analysis.  Instead, take the time to apply some additional critical thinking and give them what they want – not what they’re asking for.

What about you?  How do you handle the pressure from clients to deliver instant analysis? Let me know!