During my career, I’ve had the privilege of building two reporting and analytics teams.  Though the industries and teams were very different, one central question served as a touchstone for our work and delivered consistent results: “What should your end user do differently, now that they know this?

If we couldn’t answer that question, we didn’t move forward. 

The culture of the two reporting and analytics teams couldn’t have been more different. The first was at a global enterprise resource planning software company, and it came together rapidly when experienced staff from sales, marketing, and services operations were combined to create a central reporting function. Each team member had years of experience in their specialty, and the work environment was buttoned down.

In my second go-around, I was hired to create a business analytics and research department at a pro sports franchise, where turnover among experienced staff and budget realities led me to hire an entirely new team of fairly recent graduates. We worked extreme hours, built our infrastructure from the ground up, and held one weekly team meeting per month at a bar.

But in both cases, whether managing an experienced team or a group learning on the job, I constantly returned to that same mantra. Yes, I probably should have found a more eloquent way to phrase the question. (If anyone wants to offer a book deal off this blog post, I promise the next version will roll off the tongue!)

And yes, my team sometimes grew tired of being asked the same thing (although the free beer helped). However, I always returned to that mantra because it drives real, tangible decision-making throughout the measurement process. 

If your team believes the end result of their project is the finished reporting deliverable, then the door is open to invest time in a vast array of insights that don’t drive results. Knowledge may be power, but spreading knowledge that isn’t actionable is just a powerful waste of the organization’s money.

Introducing this key question into planning moves the goalposts to where they really belong. The true end result of a measurement and analytics project is the action taken by the end user who receives the insights you produce. Understanding this inherently introduces a need to align your work to company and departmental goals. Why would your end user act on your organization’s insights if they didn’t see a clear benefit to themselves in reaching their own targets?  This line of thinking can help you build real, relevant use cases when you plan.

When it comes time to execute, even a well-planned project can go off the rails.  In the early stages of data collection and tracking, measure and track everything you reasonably can. After all, you can’t possibly know what questions you may need to answer in the future, so gather data as completely and granularly as possible. The trouble with options is that sooner or later, those of us who choose analytics for a living tend to fall in love with our toys.  We never run out of cool new things to track, calculate, and display — why settle for one kind of chart when the latest BI visualization tool can do a dozen?

Some iteration in creating deliverables is healthy. It’s inevitable that the first release of a new dashboard will spark new thinking and inspire new questions.  As they build, teams can save themselves editing cycles by applying this key question to the specific use cases.  If you were expected to make changes based on these insights yourself, how exactly would you do it?  Do you have clear enough direction?  What information might still be missing that would make you unsure of how to proceed? What is included that doesn’t help your decision?  By focusing on what resulting change in action your team is expecting, the insights delivered become much more specific. Visualizations become clearer and more purpose-built to drive results.

This concept can also be easily applied to auditing and improving your deliverables. If you are joining an existing team, this may be your first activity. Wading through all the dashboards and reporting can be overwhelming.  Focusing on what the end user should do differently now that they have access to these insights greatly simplifies the process.

If that answer doesn’t come quickly to mind when you’re reviewing a dashboard or report, it should be retired or reworked to offer more specific recommendations. If a well-designed deliverable demonstrates that clear actions are needed, but it hasn’t gained traction with end users, reevaluate whether this work is aligned with their current goals. Is it giving them help they didn’t ask for or don’t have the ability to use?

Forrester SiriusDecisions analysts are available to help clients throughout the measurement and analytics process, with detailed research and customized advice for your business. In the meantime, consistent reference to this touchstone question can improve the output and help shape the culture of your reporting team.

In my experience, providing feedback in this form is viewed as both constructive and instructive, empowering analytics professionals to push themselves to deliver better answers on their own. It was certainly more popular than my other mantra, “We don’t say it’s not our job unless we can say whose job it is.”

I guess I can save that one for another blog post …