Stretching Your Analytical Skills

By: David F. Zirkle, PhD

[box]”Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” -John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963[/box]

According to Intel, the quantity of information generated from the beginning of time until 2003 was approximately 5 exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes); today we create that amount every 48 hours.  This massive influx of data, combined with cheap and powerful technology, places a premium on analytical skills in the workplace.  The question for most organizations comes down to: How do you best harvest the data? Here are some best practices for building and stretching your analytical skills:

Define the problem.  Premature conclusions and solutions are the enemies of good problem solving.  Stop and first define what the problem is (and what it is NOT).  Write down the problem and what you want achieve.  Simply defining the problem forces you to think about what you are trying to solve and helps you identify the data and information necessary to solve the problem.

Collect Information.  Seek out information that’s relevant to solving the issue at hand.  This becomes a balancing act. Too little can impact possible solutions; too much information can result in  diminishing returns (where the cost of collecting more data exceeds the benefits).  While there is no hard rule, the one-third approach is often used as a starting point: Allocate one-third of time to data collection, one-third to analysis and one-third to interpretation and reporting.

Avoid rush to judgment.  Most of us have favorite solutions and often pre-judge the situation without considering the nuances of the problem.  It is important to suspend judgment while information is being collected.  It’s easy to form an impression on the basis of very little information, but hard to change once the impression has taken root.  Failure to fully consider alternatives is one of the most common causes of a flawed or incomplete analysis.

Break down big problems into smaller pieces.  Sometimes the key to solving big problems is to break them into a series of smaller ones. A smaller element is an easier problem to solve.  Software developers have used this technique for years to build large, complex computer programs.  Breaking a large project into smaller elements also allows you to manage the work more effectively and ultimately gives you a better chance of success.

Keep asking why.  Learning begins by asking questions and then seeking answers.  One popular technique developed by Toyota Motors is known as the “Five Whys.”  This is an iterative process used to determine the root cause of a defect or problem.  To drill down to the core of a problem, the key is to ask “Why?”  Each question forms the basis of the next question.  The “Five” in the name comes from observations on the number of iterations typically required to resolve the problem.

Ask for advice and input.  Even if you think you have the solution, ask others for input just to make sure.  Studies have shown that a key component of successful decision-making is the ability to actively listen and consider what you have heard from others.  If you ask, “Who have I asked for input on solving this problem?” and the answer is no one, then you are missing one of the most effective tools for achieving a solution.

Build your communication skills.  With the emphasis on analytical skills, there is often a lack of attention on improving communication skills.  While analytical thinking is a left-brain exercise; it’s an art, too.  Communicating results to decision-makers can be challenging, but communication is absolutely critical.  Effectively communicating results is the “last mile” in the analytical process.

Find a Mentor.  Mentoring programs have long been recognized as a key strategy for attracting, developing and retaining top employees.  According to a survey by the American Society for Training and Development, 75% of executives said that mentoring had been critical in helping them reach their current position.

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