What makes a good analyst? Kevin Ertell from Sur La Table gave a magnificent talk at the recent E-Commerce Expo Melbourne that got me thinking.
I caught up with Kevin at the evening drinks, along with Craig Smith from Trinity Insight, and it turns out that we all have a background in the arts. Kevin is a talented bass player who played with the band Saber in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Craig is a musician and I am a painter and sculptor.
As an active analytics practitioner, I always like to know how other analysts ended up in this field. It is rare (I’d say never, but you can’t rule out those black swans) to find someone who embarked upon their career with the sole purpose of becoming a web analytics professional. There are many paths to our profession, but I’ve noted that the analysts I respect most tend to have diverse backgrounds that include some creative passion or practice.
Foster Creative Connections
When most people hear ‘analytics’, they think numbers and they often assume that numbers must be one of those ‘left-brained’ things that only engineering types can master. I believe any good analyst must have a foot placed firmly in both camps to be effective. The best analysts look beyond the immediate and obvious to find alternative hypotheses, and these ideas don’t magically appear from nowhere. Creative ideas are the results of association and memory.
Ideas take many forms, but great ideas are rarely the result of a linear sequence of rational steps. Most ideas come from random associations that we make and often the best ones result from unexpected associations. Take humor for example – a good joke or skit is the result of unexpected connections. Analytics is somewhat similar: seemingly random connections can play a big part in finding something worth reporting.
And this is where creativity comes into play (in all senses of the word). Deliberately creating these random associations has long been recognized as a way to build new connections that take us beyond the obvious. Take the Lateral Thinking methods of Edward de Bono and others, for example, which provide ways of facilitating creativity. Structured creative thinking can assist in breakthrough problem-solving in a way that no other approach can.
Analytics is far more than just looking at numbers – it is taking a deeper look at what might make a difference, and that takes ideas. Good ideas take time and are often random but using processes such as focussed day dreaming, design thinking and other approaches can lead to deep insights.
Release Your Inner Engineer
The problem is that ideas are cheap. We all have them in abundance and we can be far too proud and possessive of them. This is where we need to release our inner engineer to exercise some adult supervision. Rationally testing the idea is the next step, both during exploratory analysis and in the following hypothesis testing. This needs both statistical expertise and the courage to question and test your best idea just as hard as your worst one. No playing favorites can be allowed.
Sadly many analysts in the web analytics industry either lack a rigorous understanding of statistics and probability, or they don’t know when and where to apply them. While their hypotheses may be interesting, they aren’t going to help clients unless they can be based on real data and real testing.
Our inner engineer needs coaching as much as our inner artist.
This isn’t to say that rational thinking and our inner engineer is less important. After all even Edison recognized that inspiration is only part of the process with the statement “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration”. Without engineering, ideas will remain only ideas. Engineering thinking is how ideas turn into reality. Naturally any talented analyst needs both and unfortunately it can be a rare combination, particularly when you also include the need for business acumen.
Harmonizing Logic And Creativity
So my message to analysts is to get creative and learn to release the inner engineer under strict conditions. Getting these two approaches to work harmoniously together is the best way to produce the quality analysis that gets results.
What is your ideal balance between the inner artist and the inner engineer? Is it 80/20, 50/50 or something else? And what’s the best way, in a busy workplace, to keep fostering the creative insights that produce our best ideas?
Please add your thoughts in comments.