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Right Answer, Wrong Question

February 11, 2012

Close your eyes and imagine that you’re on stage in front of 50,000 screaming fans. You are getting ready to rock their faces off. Your Marshall stack is set on 11, you applied your eyeliner and half a bottle of Aquanet to your hair (at least that’s how we did it in the 80s). You fire up the accordion and start belting out a thrilling version of the Beer Barrel Polka.

What? That isn’t the way you expected your “rock ‘n roll fantasy” to play out?

If you want to rock and audience, it’s often helpful to play a rock song (Weird Al notwithstanding).

If you want your analytics to rock, the data you produce and the analysis you do has to be focused on the desired business outcome. When your measurement and analytics efforts fail, it’s not always because the data is incorrect or the analysis is poor, but sometimes because you are providing the right answer to the wrong question.

In his book “the 7 habits of highly effective people” Stephen Covey talks about “beginning with the end in mind”. This concept is critical in selecting the right metrics to measure. Incorrectly defining the problem is the analytics equivalent of opening up a rock show singing “Role out the barrel.” You might do it flawlessly but the outcome may not result in thousands of screaming fans (though it might involve a different type of screaming).

At this point you may be asking yourself “self… how do I figure out what the right question is?”

This is where things can get a little tricky. If you ask the typical stakeholders what metrics they want, they’re probably going to do one of 2 things:

  • Say they don’t know and ask you to tell them
  • Ask for the metrics they’re familiar with

In the situation is easy to put the blame on the business owner for not knowing what they need, however, I tend to think the problem isn’t that they gave you the wrong answer, is that you asked them the wrong question.

A better question to ask might be “what are you trying to understand?” or “what are you trying to accomplish?” As analytic professionals, we should be able to help them find appropriate metrics to answer their questions once the questions have been correctly defined.

There are of course certain questions we simply can’t answer with the tools that we have. If this is the case, we need to explain the situation and look for proxy measures that can give us enough directional information to work with (this may also be an excuse to lobby for those cool new analytics toys we’ve been wanting.)

If you want your analytics to rock, make sure you’re providing the right answer to the right question.

Rock On

MC rockin' War Pig's on the accordion

3 Comments leave one →
  1. David Price permalink
    February 13, 2012 4:48 pm

    Very good, well said!

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