contracting mistake
September 8, 2021

3 all too common mistakes analysts make when contracting for work

By Paul Laughlin

Building on the top 5 mistakes that analysts make, shared by guest blogger Andy Sutton, in this series I’ll share the 10 all too common mistakes that I’ve seen.

These are shared with the hope of us all raising our game & staying aware of these risks. They are not intended as a criticism of hard working analysts, who have a challenging enough role already. So, please hear them in the spirit of being shared by someone who has made all of them.

I’ve thought about what goes wrong for analysts within the framework of my own Softer Skills model. That has prompted me to identify 3 mistakes made in the contracting stage, 3 during technical work & 3 when delivering. My final observation will be grounded in the skill that supports those other 9 (the need for commercial awareness). So, without further ado, let me dish the dirt on the first 3 I’ve seen go wrong, sometimes terribly wrong…

3 mistakes that analysts make when contracting

The stage of contracting on the work to be done is always perilous & too often lacks the attention needed. Here are 3 mistakes that I have seen cause analysts to set themselves up for failure down the track.

(1) Being a passive ‘order taker’ (failing to question what is really needed)

In too many business cultures, junior staff learn an unspoken rule that senior staff are busy and you get on by just doing what they say. This can have disastrous consequences for analysts. Partly due to a general lack of data literacy, but often due to insufficient time taken for critical thinking, most requests for analysis are not what is needed.

By this I mean the initial request is based on assumptions & past experience. It is often a type of ‘solutionising‘ that is so detested by software developers. Like them, analysts should challenge the stakeholder to explain what they need to know/do/change and let the analyst design a solution to meet that need. This often requires Socratic Questioning to dig beneath what is requested & gain clarity on the underlying need.

Tactic to avoid 1: Ask questions to get to the real need, don’t passively deliver the initial request. Use Socratic Questioning to clarify the business need & then propose appropriate analysis to meet/inform that need.

(2) Inaccurately estimating how long it will take to deliver (not learning from past experience)

The worlds of IT projects and Change Management broadly have a terrible reputation for failing to deliver on time. A rough rule of thumb is that a major project will take twice as long to deliver as the original estimate and cost twice as much. But before we feel smug, the world of analytics & data science is fast approaching a similar problem. Too often an analysts are guessing at this stage. After confirming what the business needs, they use intuition or past heuristics to provide the business with an estimated delivery date that they fail to hit.

At least two skills need to be improved to mitigate this. Better planning & better time management. A disciplined approach to recording past delivery times & using retrospectives to improve mitigation plans & future estimates. Creative analysts also need to embrace more day to day discipline. Yes, analytical investigation & thinking skills are a creative pursuit. But that does not mean you cannot be organised & plan your use of time effectively. Many analysts could learn a great deal from productivity experts like Cal Newport & Peter Bregman.

Tactic to avoid 2: Capture what delays delivery. Learn from the past, using retrospective. Focus on improving your planning & time management skills.

(3) Failing to involve other key stakeholders early enough to achieve buy-in

This problem can best be explained by a quote from Alexander Hamilton (the American founding father & abolitionist):

Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.”

Alexander Hamilton

Analysts often neglect to think in advance about stakeholders. To consider those who might be impacted by the results of their analysis or might provide useful input. This results in stakeholders who experience not being consulted until the last minute. I’ve even seen this when the recommendation from analysis is a major change to their area. Sales directors not consulted early about new models or targets for leads. Marketing directors not being consulted prior to presentation of marketing effectiveness analysis that trashes one of their campaigns.

Needless to say, such an approach often ends badly. Setting the analyst up for failure with a stakeholder who may resist their recommendation or even overtly undermine the quality of their work. Many analysts lack a stakeholder map or plan. They have not taken the time to consider everyone they should consider right from the start. The good news is that the fix is often simple. Identify them & have a conversation earlier. Just offering them a chance to input or informing them about the analysis can get them ‘on board‘.

Tactic to avoid 3: Create a stakeholder map for regular or major work. Identify stakeholders who may be impacted by findings. Consult with them early on to avoid later opposition.

What else have you seen go wrong while analysts are contracting for work?

I hope those 3 mistakes were helpful ‘watch outs‘. What else have you seen go wrong? Are there other common mistakes that you would highlight, that set analysts up for failure?

In the next post of this series, I will share 3 all too common mistakes that analysts make during the technical phase of their work. Until then, think ahead & be careful out there!