Develop your thinking
June 23, 2023

How to develop your thinking skills as an analyst

By Tristan Mobbs

Continuing our focus on thinking, it’s time to consider how you might develop your thinking skills. Nothing we have considered so far in this series is static, each skill can be developed.

To help us investigate this topic, I am pleased to welcome back Tristan Mobbs who is becoming a regular guest blogger. Regular readers will recall that Tristan is an experienced Data & Analytics Manager for Kite Packaging who also helps others through sharing content as the ‘Data Translator‘. He has generously shared with us before on topics including making the most of your existing technology & finding the right employer for you.

In this post, Tristan shares three different thinking skills which an analyst needs to develop. In his normal humble style, he outlines lessons that he has learned himself. Over to Tristan to bring to life the importance of curiosity, process thinking & empathy.

Starting out on your development journey

As an analyst, you probably come from a technical background. You enjoy problem-solving and the challenges you are posed. You have great skills in connecting things together and working out how to process data.

In your first roles, you are likely to be set technical challenges to overcome without understanding the full business need. So how do you develop your thinking skills to work out the best ways to overcome these challenges?

The importance of Curiosity

Let’s start with curiosity, this is a vital skill for an analyst. Working out why things are the way they are. How things work. Why a particular number looks odd and whether you should care about it.

That last point is vital as you develop your thinking skills. Most analysts will find something that looks odd and will dive deeper and deeper into the data rabbit hole, trying to find the reasons why. This is where developing a wider business understanding will come in. Instead of the curiosity of why the number looks odd, it’s time to investigate the cause and effect of that odd number. By talking to business stakeholders, you may find out the reasons why. By identifying how many odd numbers there are, you may find out that they don’t really matter.

This has been a lesson throughout my career and one I still struggle with. Wanting to fix every last data error means you are stuck in a cycle of fixing, rather than creating a cycle of business change through projects that have a bigger impact. By developing your thinking skills and business understanding you can identify where to dive deeply into the data, and where to acknowledge there are issues. This is a skill that only comes with experience and strong stakeholder relationships.

Thinking about Process Optimisation

As you develop as an analyst, you start to progress from being an order taker. You go from just updating or running processes in front of you, to developing new and challenging existing processes.

This is a vital development step and one where thinking skills are required. There are a lot of poor processes out there. Some are inefficient. Some shouldn’t exist. How do you develop the skills to consider what processes are right for your business?

Start to think about the big picture. Understand what processes should be automated and which ones people need to be involved in. Start to think about what the outcome of each process should be. What are these processes trying to achieve? Are these processes meeting one goal well or trying to meet multiple goals but failing to achieve any of them?

Develop your understanding and your empathy

Data projects are change projects. The insight gleaned from data should be put into changing the way a business operates. Without change, there is little point in gathering data, you might as well just continue on your current path. Developing your thinking skills to identify the changes that will make a difference, and will be adopted, across the business is crucial.

Change is hard to master, you will encounter resistance along the way. So you need to develop your skills in understanding and having empathy for the departments you are trying to change. Deep thinking is required here to build an understanding of others and to identify unique ways in which to engage different people. The challenge here is winning hearts and minds. If little thought is put into delivering change and supporting people through it, then your data projects will fall flat.

Why should you develop your thinking skills?

As an analyst, thinking skills are vital to piece together information and to ensure your analytics adds value to your business. They also help with problem-solving when in the depths of your code. Being aware of the times to get away from your code and create time for your brain to process and think through the problem you are facing. The number of times a solution comes, not when you are at your desk, but when you have walked away and given yourself time to think.

Through thinking things through analysts can uncover hidden patterns in data, ensure focus on solving the right problems for their business and deliver optimized processes that make businesses far more effective and efficient.

Without thinking things through analysts are often stuck in rabbit holes. They will overcomplicate processes and deliver them far more slowly than if given a narrow focus. Analysts may also fail to show empathy and understanding to other employees in the business and become frustrated that their work isn’t implemented. Developing broader thinking skills help to solve these challenges.

How could you apply those development tips?

Many thanks to Tristan for once again sharing his lessons learned from experience. I hope every reader noticed at least one suggestion (or even prick of conscience) that was relevant to them. What was most helpful for you?

I recommend taking a few minutes now to write down how you could apply that most relevant advice. What do you need to protect time to do? How could you invest more in this vital skill set? Where will you make that commitment & where could such a focus help your peers or your team? Have fun developing yourself further, every day really can be a school day!