How To Give All The Wrong Answers

As per my last post,at the end of 2012, I was doing a family vacation in Taiwan.  Being with family for 2 weeks is quite an expose into mannerisms that each of us have.  I was particularly intrigued by my brother’s questioning of my mother.  My brother would constantly ask my mother things like “why are we going to [city_name]?” instead of “what are we planning to do when we get there?” and “how much time will I need to prepare the kids to sit in the car?”  Luckily, we had my mother there fueling the ridiculous line of questioning.  90% of the time, her answers had nothing to do with the questions he was asking.

  • “Why are we going to [city_name]?” “Oh, let me tell you, when I was growing up, I used to play with my cousins there.”
  • “Mom, why are we going to [city_name]?” “Oh, did you see that beautiful view over there?”
  • “Mom, can you please just tell me why were are going to [city_name]?” “Don’t worry, you will love it.  It’s beautiful there.”

There are two items I’d like to diagnose.  First, are we actually listening to the question?  Second, did we understand the question?

The first is fascinating to me because I’m not sure we actually are listening.  Many of our reporting organizations are pure intake, create, output engines.  We grab the data that is asked for, create the report and send it out hoping we got it right.  Basically, we are spec takers.  Second question follows right after the first.  Much of the time, we don’t know why report requesters want the data at all.  We could be asking ourselves why they want to know, and if the data we are providing helps them solve a problem.  If we are really cool, we could be asking if they are even trying to solve the right problem or not.

Here are a few questions you should explore when data requests come your way:

  • How are you going to use the data?
  • What is the core problem you are trying to solve for?
  • Are there other data elements or analysis that we have that can help further?
  • Are there other correlated problems that we should try to answer at the same time?

For all intents and purposes, this post is the exact corollary of the prior on how to ask the right questions.  The problem with being a non-strategic reporting organization is that if the wrong questions get asked, the output is doomed to be the wrong information as well.  But even works, sometimes the wrong question gets asked and we still give the requestor the wrong data back.  All this does is create turn – another report request, or bad data going to managers (who in turn trust HR a little less the next time around).

In the case of my brother, he asked the wrong question in the first place.  It would have been much more advantageous had he explained why it was important for him to prepare the children for the outing, have the right clothes, have enough food along, and maybe get them extra sleep.  I’ll never know if my mother would have given him the right information in return, “yes it usually rains on that side of the island, it’s 40 minutes away, and we will be in a friend’s house so they can’t get too wild.”  But the crafting if the right answer is a tight collaboration of both sides creating understanding of what the objectives are.


How To Ask All The Wrong Questions

At the end of 2012, I was doing a family vacation in Taiwan.  When I say family vacation, I mean not just my wife and me, but my brother’s family along with my parents, visiting all of the senior members of the family (an important thing in Asian cultures).  There is an incredible exposure of habits and an interesting (but sometimes undesirable) analysis of where my brother and I got those habits from.  I was particularly intrigued by my brother’s questioning of my mother.  Let’s just say that getting 2 grown sons, their spouses, and our parents together creates a certain amount of strife.

Let’s also just say that my brothers’ hauling around of two young children may have added to the stress – he really needed to understand the daily schedules and what was going to happen when.  Back to the questions: my brother would constantly ask my mother things like “why are we going to [city_name]?” instead of “what are we planning to do when we get there?” and “how much time will I need to prepare the kids to sit in the car?”  (more on my mom’s response in the next post)

The problem in the questions was not the question itself, but in the thought process.  All too often, we ask questions about what we think we are supposed to know.  We want to know about turnover, headcount, spending per employee.  This is information that is useful, but does not actually inform us about what our next actions are.  Being “strategic” to me means that we have a plan, and we are actively managing our programs towards that plan.  If we’re using data that just skims the surface of information, we have no ability to adjust direction and keep going in the right direction.

I’ve often heard storied about HR executives who go into the CEO office for a meeting to present data, and all they get are questions back that cannot be answered.  Some HR teams go into those meetings with huge binders (sometimes binders that I’ve sent with them), and those teams come out still not having answered the questions.  The problem is not with the data.  The problem is that the team has not figured out what the actionable metric is, and what the possible actions are.  No CEO cares about the data – they want action that ties back to what the strategic objective is.  In other words, why do they care?

Here are a couple things you can do to craft better questions:

  • Always think about the root of the question:  HR tends to analyze at the surface more than some other functions.  We have finance doing complex correlations and marketing doing audience analysis.  We’re reporting headcount and turnover to executives.  What kind of crap is that?
  • Be a child:  Ask why/what/how up to 3 times.  Why 1: “Why are we going to [city_name]?”  Why 2: “Why do I want to know what we are going to do there?” What 3: “What do the kids need to be prepared with?”
  • Take action:  If you ask a question that can be answered in such a way that you can’t take action, you asked the wrong question.
  • Create an intake form that customers can request through: make sure you ask the right questions here to ensure they think through the process and understand what they need.

Many of the organizations I consult with have some pretty robust analytics organizations.  When I dig under the covers, they are reacting to create ad hoc reports for managers and HR business partners.  Once a quarter they scramble to create a CEO report card to depict the state of HR programs.  This state is sad to me.  We should be doing deeper analysis and diagnosis on a daily basis.  If we asked the HRBP’s what/why that wanted data for, we’d probably find there is a huge amour of quality analysis being performed in silos that could be leveraged organizationally.


The Art of Story

Whether you are at a conference watching a videographer recording the event, or witnessing a $100M film getting made, the process of recording to final editing is always the same.  Actually seeing how stories unfold is rather amazing – it’s the real life is nowhere near as linear as the resultant film that everyone sees.  Instead, what gets recorded onto the raw film is more of a patchwork of completely random thoughts, statements and images.  If you actually watched all of the film in the order that it’s recorded, most of it would make absolutely no sense in the context of what surrounds it.  The editing process is about bringing together the common elements and magnifying the key points, and then putting everything back into an order than is meaningful in the sense of a story.

The problem with HR is that HR executives are not like finance or technology executives.  The art of story is a bit more important than the science of numbers.  Where we can always count on having a detailed TCO or ROI study ready for our CFO’s, sometimes HR looks at the numbers and wants to know “why?”  And the “why” is never about the number, but about the qualitative.

Whether you are a consultant or a HR practitioner creating a business case, the same thing tends to happen.  You pick up random conversations, have random meetings, perform sets of broad interviews, and at the end of collecting data, you have… lots of data.  It’s not until you distill everything you have that the major concepts and key points start to emerge.  You then start analyzing each of these key items and start to observe where interactions are and how they are related to each other, interweaving them into a storyline that executives can digest and understand.

The art of story is important in HR because even though we are interested in efficiency and cost savings, we are really about effectiveness.  We enable employees to grow and managers to execute, and as much as we hate it when people say that HR is “touchy feely,” the truth is that we are not a strictly quantitative function.  At the end of the day, we use the science that we have (cost studies, analytics, data) to enable increased effectiveness in process, engagement, and talent.

I obviously love talking about technology, and I’m pretty good at figuring out what data is telling me, but presenting data to executives is never the answer.  Sure a nice graph helps out, but there is always a story behind the data, and that story tells us where we have been and where we should be going.  What the data does not tell us, is what the outcomes are that we need to achieve.  We use data to inform our stories and direct where we need to get to based on HR strategy.

HR is comprised of quite a few random pieces of data, from technology enabled analytics, process outcomes, talent data, HR transactional data, etc.  HR outcomes and strategies are usually aggregations of each of these areas as individual data points combine to create overall direction and outcomes – formulating the data in such a way that it can actually give us a sense of place, direction and story is more important in HR than any other function that I can think of.


I remember when I moved into my last house (I’m in a condo now, it’s what happens when you move to the Bay Area, a house becomes an apartment).  We moved in and my wife had in her mind that she wanted butter yellow walls.  She had a very specific “butter” in mid – not the dark color associated with butter that has been sitting out for a while and is room temperature, but the butter that has just come out of the freezer, and is quite light in color.  So I went on my merry way to the local paint store and bought the color called “butter,” went home and proceeded to paint a room with it.  “JANE!!”  ((Name made up, for Jane Doe”)) I called as my senses were assaulted with a richly glowing room the color of maize.  So we proceeded to go back to the paint store and get a lighter yellow.  This pattern proceeded for what would eventually be five rounds before we got it right (and yes, our house had 5 different shades of yellow since I was rather unwilling to repaint the whole house). 

Sometimes you just don’t know what you want until you see it.  This actually drives me crazy.  When I plan a project, I actually start with the end state in mind.  I’ll usually design what the final report looks like and go backwards from there, even though I have no idea what the content in that report will actually be.  What I do know is what data I need to run and how I’m going to go about analyzing it.  I might have an idea what the data will tell me, but the discovery process is always fun as I’m often surprised.  The point is that I actually start with an empty shell and tell myself what data I need and how I’m going to slice and dice it.

It drives me absolutely crazy when people have no idea what it is that they want.  A project sponsor might know they want a business case, but once they have it, they decide that they didn’t want qualitative, they wanted quantitative, and then they wanted hard dollars only, not soft, and then they wanted 7 years out, not 5, and then they realized that they wanted qualitative after all.

It’s not just consultants that get in a never ending grind with projects that won’t end, but many companies have internal teams that suffer from sufficient visioning from their sponsors as well.  Part of initiating a project should actually be a pretty precise definition of what the outcomes are and what the output requirements should be.  We generally all spend too much time doing and too little time preparing whether it’s a project or an implementation, and much energy is wasted on going back to the paint store when the first trip (ok, perhaps the second) should have sufficed.