The curious analyst

The curious analyst

Curiosity is one of the most important characteristics that distinguish great analysts. And, unlike sql, python or any other technical skill, we’re quick to dismiss curiosity as something that can’t be taught. We often call it “innate” (I’m guilty of this in my post just last week). How many times have we all heard soft, vague feedback like “they’re just not curious enough” when describing an underperforming analyst.

And there’s some truth here - you can’t show someone how to be curious (forgive me as I’m about to try…). At least not in the literal way that you can show someone how to run a linear regression, or how to spin up a redshift instance.

That’s because curiosity is a practice. It’s not a skill. It’s something that’s ongoing and only as good as the practice itself and its surrounding feedback loops. It can be lost. It can be ignited. It can ebb and flow. But the more it’s practiced the more it compounds. Curiosity has momentum.

As such, our job as leaders in developing analysts is not to demand curiosity. Instead it’s to help someone start and build their practice. Asking someone to be more curious is like asking someone to be more intelligent. It’s not helpful, and they won’t know where to start!

Starting a practice.

This is a tactic that worked for me, and one I’ve experienced working for others (of course, there are likely many other approaches and manifestations of curiosity). However, I find that great analysts almost always do some form of this, whether explicitly or not. I call it the “overheard list.”  

The concept is simple. I would keep a list of every comment I overheard in any discussion that sounded like an opinion, a thought, or a disagreement that I thought might possibly be proved, debunked, or clarified with some form of analysis. I would source these comments in meetings, water-cooler chats, over lunch, happy hour, or any other forum of discussion. Tune your ear and you’d be quite surprised at the number of conversations with no resolution, or worse yet, that decisions are made from unfounded, unproven opinions.

The goal isn’t to answer or analyze every comment you write down. Instead, the act of writing down these comments is itself the beginning of a curiosity practice. Even without acting against comments, you’re accruing value. Every comment is a potential connection point rattling in your head - accessible consciously or subconsciously - offering inspiration for an unintended leap as you do your primary work. Eminem had a similar practice. He read the dictionary.

Building a practice.

As you can imagine, the next step is to act against the overheard list. The beauty of crowdsourcing ideas is that it removes the fear and self doubt that can often be attached to your own ideas. After all, if digging into that obscure idea yields nothing interesting, well it wasn’t your idea. At the same time, prove, debunk, or clarify any of these ideas and you have an immediate champion in the person from which you overheard it.

Many ideas won’t be possible to investigate. Many won’t be valuable to analyze. You’ll set out to analyze many and yield nothing. In many ways it’s a volume game, and the discard pile needs to be big. Below is a powerful image from Drew Dernavich, a cartoonist who has published more cartoons in the New Yorker than possibly anyone else.

Every dead-end is a learning, no matter how frustrating. And every yes is a thrilling, catapulting experience. I can still feel my excitement when I was on the scent of something interesting! But the ratio is very likely to look something like the image above. That is part of the practice.

Stick with your practice long enough and you’ll begin to see a virtuous cycle. As you engage more stakeholders and more parts of the business, your overheard list will grow. Questions beget questions. Ideas beget ideas. You’ll be involved in more conversations and you’ll even start to develop your own, well informed ideas. Ultimately, your influence will grow.

I find the process of starting and building this practice to be quite delicate. In the world of analysis there are many ways - whether real or perceived - that a practice can be stifled: poor data quality, overly prescriptive stakeholders, too many meetings, unclear prioritization, too much work, to name a few. Great parents think a lot about how to maintain and foster the curiosity of their kids. Great managers and leaders do the same - helping to soften the blow of every no and fan the flame for every yes.

Most importantly though, curiosity isn't innate. It can be built, and it starts with intentional and deliberate practice. I’m reminded here of a quote from Seth Godin: “We don’t ship the work because we’re creative. We’re creative because we ship the work.” The same spirit applies - it’s not curiosity that makes someone practice. It’s the practice itself that makes someone curious.

I’d be curious to hear how others approach their practices.

Equals is the next-generation spreadsheet