Want to Lead in Analytics? Learn to Question.

 

By Ben Olsen, CEO, Analytics Guild

Answers are a data professional’s bread and butter. Whether it’s your employees building the next version of your analytics platform or a consultant creating your next roadmap, the expectations are the same: analytics professionals should bring expert opinions, recommendations and results to the table. 

But truly effective professionals often flip into a different mode when delivering world-class analytics; instead of answering, they ask questions. The right questions. They listen. And they listen again. As owner of the platform, the roadmap, the project, they empower others to reach answers through their guidance, elevating everyone’s engagement. In other words, they operate like professional coaches.

Answers are closed doors. And questions are open doors that invite us in.
—Nancy Willard

It is human tendency to fall back on easy answers when encountering a problem; it’s time-efficient to do so, as we consider what we should implement, what charts to use, what a rollout plan needs to look like, and so on. This is as much a habit in the analytics profession as any other. According to one Duke University study, more than 45% of all our activity every day is habitual. In other words: “Things have been done this way before,” the expectations are already set. So we simply meet them.

There is nothing wrong with efficiency just as long as we’re aware that it has the potential to harm innovation and individual engagement. Positive change and engagement in business is driven by people through discovery and curiosity just as much as it is through the structures that provide us quick answers (dashboards and the like). When we need to enable discovery and curiosity, there’s no quicker way to do that in your business than “putting on” the role of the coach.

To unlock the full value of analytics, your organization needs to develop coaching as a skill among all its leaders. This powerful role—which anyone can play, regardless of title—revolves around questioning. Michael Bungay Stanier, in his book The Coaching Habit, shares a few of his favorite coaching questions:

“What’s the biggest challenge here for you?” 
“And what else?” 
“Is this most important to you?” 
“What made you choose this course of action?” 
“What do you want from this work?” 

These types of questions tend to disarm regular (or lazy) modes of thinking and cut to the heart of the problem. When we flip too quickly into answer-mode, the root of the problem is usually left to grow, like a weed—whereas questions and the coaching mode expose these roots. It goes deeper into questions about your relationship to those people, processes, and the very technologies that perpetuate habits of answering before questioning. 

You can think of coaching in two modes:

Coaching for Performance: Empowering your people to discover their own answers to problems related to populations, processes, data, and technology through your questions. 

Coaching for Development: Opening up opportunities for increased empathy, resilience and efficiency when it comes to how you relate to these four areas (coaching for development) through questions. 

Analytics Guild has developed unique programs for both coaching modes.

It is simple to start cultivating the coaching mindset. Next time you start a conversation with your consultant, your employee, or your boss, cut to the heart of matters by asking, “What’s on your mind?” Then listen. 

Look for those in your team who also ask real questions; they’re the curious ones you can cultivate into truly world-class colleagues and change agents. 

Finally, in starting your new habit, remember, as thought leader and professor David Cooperrider said, “We live in the world our questions create.” Let’s create a winning world in analytics, for our organization and ourselves, through our questions.