As our world becomes more data-driven, I see more and more roles in companies using analytical skills in their day-to-day work. But what are the key analytical skills you need and how do you improve them?
Who is this for? Anyone, but I’m specifically making it accessible to non-core data folks: so if you’re not an analyst or data scientist, I encourage you to read on!
Analytical Skills: What are they?
We’re going to focus on 2 primary groups of skills:
- Communication Skills: This is your ability to ask good questions and communicate answers when you discover them. If you are unable to communicate in a compelling way, this reduces your ability to work with data.
- Critical Thinking: The ability to think deeply and holistically about a problem or situation. With normal thinking, you may just scratch the surface, but with critical thinking, you explore the whole solution space (we’ll explain this in a moment).
What makes someone who has a data-driven mind different from someone who has just an opinion?
The Right Questions 🙂
Let’s dive in with an example: What if I told you that 10% of my users sign up by email to get future blog updates from me.
What questions should I ask about that piece of information?
What do I mean by user?
In this case, it’s the cookie that google analytics will store on your phone or computer. Some people might have more than one device (I often use my phone and laptop for example).
Over what time period? Is that 10% in the last day? The last week? All time?
If it was just yesterday, then that’s not terribly impressive, but if it is over the last year, that’s not bad.
What does sign up mean?
In this case, it’s pretty obvious — most of us know what email is, but we could ask questions like do they get a welcome email? How many of those emails were valid?
Does this seem like a lot? It’s an extreme circumstance, but that’s intentional.
Treat the words out of your mouth like the things you put in your body: Do you completely understand where it came from, what it’s made of, and how you are using it?
If the answer is no, you are not taking ownership.
Why is this bad?
You are opening yourself to misinterpretation.
The most sought skill in work is being able to take ownership of everything you do: accomplishing a project, committing to deadlines, and knowing what you are talking about.
If you don’t know the answers? Ask! People are very willing to help. You make good, strong communication by asking about things that are not clear to you.
But How Do I Get Better?
Practice! What is a good question?
One you ask that helps clarify the subject matter or changes the course of the conversation.
Here are a few examples to get you started:
- Where did the information come from?
- Is it a trustworthy source?
- What is the timeframe?
- Do you understand what all the groups are? If not, what do they mean?
- Is the information being summarized? What does the underlying data look like?
- Are there known issues with the data?
- Was any of the information missing?
- Does the statement make sense? If not, what about it doesn’t make sense to you?
Think of it this way: just try to confirm the source of everything you pass on. If you do that, you can be confident you are only handing out really good information to your coworkers and friends!
What are Common Mistakes People Make?
- Just taking information and passing it without understanding the source: this can cause you to look foolish, pass untruthful information or cause unintended consequences
- Developing a plan without the true source of the problem: If you don’t know the actual cause, sometimes our plans can go awry and lead to making the situation even worse!
If there is one overused phrase in work and school it is critical thinking! What do I actually mean here? The ability to think about your problem, all potential solutions to the problem, and identify any problem areas.
Let’s tackle my email list again: I really want to grow this someday, but how do I do that?
The solution space is a plane of all solutions that I could ever think of. Don’t feel constrained, be creative when you think of solutions!
Some options are:
- I could put a spammy popup on my page saying something like, ‘Let me change your life!’
- I could try to give my users genuine things that drive value in exchange for signing up, like free worksheets, really useful tools.
- I could do nothing and keep doing what I’m doing (one signup at the bottom of my page).
- I could pay someone to make a better form for me.
- I could learn css myself and make a better form that’s visually appealing.
- I could add in a form in the middle of my posts like below:
(Maybe Sign Ups in the Middle of My Posts Will Help! Tell Me Below!)
So, how do I compare these things?
Well, #1 is the most aggressive and most likely to annoy my readers, so I’m not going to do that.
I could do #2, but that will take time to make all of the content.
#3 is easy, but It won’t change anything.
#4 is possible, but which is more important: time or money? At the moment, I’m about $1,500 in the hole on this blog, so I’m not likely to do that.
#5 is doable — and I learn pretty fast. But again, it will take time.
But, let’s step back: what’s my problem?
People aren’t signing up for my email. Is that because my form doesn’t stand out, the message is bad, or I write bad content?
I don’t really know. But this is about exploring the solutions in the most effective way possible. How COULD I know which is the problem?
I could ask people why they don’t sign up.
Or I could test each of them out.
What is going to cost more time or the be the most effective?
It would probably take me an hour to learn enough CSS to build a form. Likewise, it would take me somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour to build pretty resources people might enjoy. But if I learn CSS, I only have to do it once.
Is time the only cost? No, I could just throw money at the problem: pay a developer to make me a better form.
Let’s look at the risks:
- There’s a risk it will take longer than I think no matter what I choose
- There’s a risk I could choose the wrong thing to focus on: make it pretty and really all people want are useful resources
- There’s a risk I could spend money and get no benefit
- There’s a risk I could try to learn CSS and fail utterly
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So, now that I KNOW the risks, I need to make a decision.
Well, I think my content is pretty good: people at work tell me that all the time, so I don’t think it’s a quality issue.
I’m a pretty non-pushy type of person, so I think I would learn CSS in this case. After that, depending if that solves the problem, I’ll try creating different types of content. I’m exploring the solution space, one potential hypothesis at a time. Don’t be afraid to write your plan down so you know your capturing all the potential solutions!
How do I get better?
You can practice brainstorming: Think about a problem and writing down all the solutions you can think of and try to identify all the risks. Show it to a friend and see if they can think of anything that you did not think of! Different people have different perspectives!
Do this many times. You’ll realize that you see more risks and solutions the more ideas you are exposed to. Consider exposing yourself to more ideas! Not sure how, I wrote a detailed post about it!
What are Common Mistakes People Make?
Having a limited view of solutions: It’s called the expert’s dilemma. Often, when you are trained in a specific area, that training comes with assumptions. Science has found when someone without that training tries the same thing, it often leads to new discoveries. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and do things a novel way.
Not identifying major risks: If you become arrogant, it can lead you to fail to identify major risks. Don’t’ be afraid to admit you made a mistake.
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