Start with a worthwhile question about the real world
In order to ask worthwhile questions of data, we need to be able to first ask worthwhile questions about the real world. How do you know whether a question about the real world is “worthwhile” though? Worth and value are highly subjective, aren’t they? What’s worthwhile for one person to do might be a total waste of time to someone else. An object of extreme value to me might be worthless to you.
So you have to define this yourself, and you have to get good at sniffing it out in different contexts: at work, at home, in your community, in the broader world. What matters most, in each of these contexts, at any given time?
For questions related to your place of work, this is where business acumen comes in, and this is where you can put your people skills and your listening skills to good use.
- What major problems are leaders within your organization trying to solve?
- What fears do you notice surfacing in conversations? Is there an urgent issue or “burning platform?”
- What possibilities seem to be getting people excited? Are there big opportunities to grasp?
- What’s currently changing in the environment? What changes might happen next?
Maybe there’s a concern about an emerging competitor in the marketplace. Maybe the company has become very cost conscious all of a sudden due to rising prices. Maybe layoffs or a product recall are looming large.
Pay attention to the “prevailing winds” blowing within the organization. The worthwhile questions will often be found swirling around in the wake of these winds.
Once you become aware of a critical issue or an upcoming shift, I recommend you behave like a journalist and ask the “5W’s and 1H” to gather more specific information about the matter at hand. The “5W’s and 1H” are classic questions that can be traced all the way back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, written in 350 B.C.E. He called this list the “Septem Circumstantiae:”
- Who? – Who will be most impacted by an issue? Who can we delight by resolving an unmet need? Who can help us make something happen? Who….?
- What? – What are the root causes of a problem? What products account for most of our revenue? What…?
- When? – When did an issue take place? When did a trend begin (or end)? When do we anticipate a situation changing? When…?
- Where? – Where have we been most (or least) successful recently? Where did people go on our website? Where…?
- Why? – Why did we have to lay people off? Why did customers want refunds? Why have orders for a service decreased? Why…?
- How? – How can we reduce waste? How can we meet an unmet need? How did a situation arise? How…?
Now that you have refined your question that applies to the real world, you need to come up with a related question that you can ask of your data. This involves “data translation” in reverse: building a bridge between the BUSINESS DOMAIN and the DATA DOMAIN. This is a very critical skill, and one that will make you indispensable to those you are hoping to help.
A Dozen ‘Hows’ to Ask Your Data
The following 12 questions are a thought-starter for you to consider to bridge the gap from the business domain to the data domain. To illustrate each of them, we’ll use a fictional coffee shop example. Additionally, follow the provided links to discover chart types, tools, and guides that will help you answer each of these questions.