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Asking the Right Questions about your Data

If you look at four-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. However, according to researchers, by the time we are six and a half, the questions stop as we quickly learn that teachers and parents value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time we're in corporate settings, the curiosity has been drummed out of us.

A recent study found 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. They are supposed to know the answers. Unless of course, they work for companies like Apple or Google, where new questions are encouraged and bring new business opportunities.

Many of the terms associated with information technology reflect the long-standing focus on 'how' to do things. Software engineering, application development, infrastructure support, data management, various project methodologies and governance all address the 'how' questions. IT folks, and most engineering professionals, are primarily action oriented, problem solving, process centric, software and hardware focused 'how' people.

But some of the best questions are 'why' questions. What is it you're trying to do and why? Why are you collecting this data and what are you going to do with it? Why are we working on so many projects with the same basic objectives? Why are there so many governance committees?

Have you ever wondered why initial meetings with good consultants are very conversational versus presentation oriented? It is because consultants seek to understand the opportunity and context before debating the 'how' to build or do something.

Adding more 'why' questions to our engagements makes us better communicators, listeners and problem solvers. The first thing Noah does on an engagement is tap into our inner four-year-old selves by asking 'why' questions to get the team on the same page and rally everyone around solving a problem. Questions allow the flow of information to begin.

Have you ever gone through a five 'whys' approach to a problem like they do in RCA exercises (Root Cause Analysis)? Once you ask the right questions, you get to the root of why people feel there needs to be a solution. The conversation shifts from, "we think we need Hadoop to get ahead of the curve," to "we want to see a reduction in cost or time it takes to do something." You start to hear quantifiable things - people start putting out hard numbers and goals.

You also begin to find out that there may already be processes in place, but people don't know about it or simply aren't using them. Sometimes the solution is that people need education and perhaps that a change management initiative needs to be implemented to manage perceptions about new technology. (Noah Consulting's upstream practice lead, Fred Kunzinger, has a great piece about managing perceptions during change ─ click here for more).

Change Management is crucial for the implementation of solutions like MDM and Governance that involve people and technology. In order for new processes to be adopted across the enterprise, there has to be a conversation about generating buy-in from leadership, who will in turn galvanize the team around the new way of doing things.

When change management is needed, the right questions often reveal that you already have the answer and just need to see it through completely. On the other hand, when you don't ask the right questions early in a project, you can miss significant opportunities for solving the right problems.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Iraj Ershaghi, head of the Petroleum Engineering department at the University of Southern California, once said, "If you go into a course with questions and come out with answers that's an undergraduate course. If you go into a course with questions and come out with many more questions, that's a graduate course." Life is a graduate course my friends. Everyone already expects us to know the answer. Now it's time to learn how to ask the right questions.

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