From data to action

I’ve been working with one of my clients recently to help them to put together a strategy and action plan for an area in which they’d like to see some improvement. They knew what they wanted to do, but they were struggling to get the necessary senior people on board. Not because they didn’t have great ideas. And not because they didn’t have the data to back up their ideas. But because they weren’t using the data in a convincing way.

It’s great when you’re trying to figure out what to do about something and there’s lots of data available. Because data mean you can figure out what’s going on and what the problem is.

I’m always delighted when I start looking at something and find that there is a plethora of official statistics, public datasets, research reports and user surveys just waiting to tell me what I need to know.

But while I can use data to help me to understand the problem and to devise a way to address it, the data itself won’t necessarily help me to convince others that my ideas represent the right way forward.

Not even (sadly) if I pull out all the stops with tables, figures and charts. Because it takes time (and skill) to understand what the data are telling me. And people don’t generally have that amount of time (or, if we’re being honest, skill). Otherwise they’d have done it themselves, rather than asking me for help.

To turn data into action, we need to take three steps:

1. Data to information

We need to take the data and turn it into information that we can use. Research reports often do that for us, by highlighting a study’s key findings. But if we just have a load of survey results or a table of figures, we need to do it for ourselves. (If, like me, you’re a complete nerd, this is the fun part.)

2. Information to analysis

We then need to take this information and analyse it. What is it telling us? Is there a clear message or are things a bit more complicated than that? Are data from different sources telling us the same thing? If not, why not?

When I’m analysing information, I try to summarise it in the form of some evidence-based statements or assertions, such as ‘university students are happier now than they were ten years ago’.

And I use the data and information to try to understand why this is the case.

3. Analysis to conclusions

Finally, we need to use the analysis to draw conclusions as to what action is required to resolve the issue in question.

On rare occasions, the conclusions (and the action required) are obvious. But it’s usually not quite as straightforward as that, so we need to think carefully about the options available to us and what will be most helpful.

We can then (hopefully) develop a proposed course of action and (in an ideal world) get some idea of how we’ll know if our action is having the desired effect.

In most organisations, though, before we can get started we’re going to need to convince other people that our ideas have merit. And this is the situation in which my client found themselves.

What we do not need to do at this stage is talk everyone through the entire process that we have followed in coming to our conclusions. After all, we’re not looking for them to understand the detail of the underlying data. And nobody is going to thank us for bombarding them with statistics.

We just want them to be happy enough to let us get on with it.

I’ve found by experience that the easiest way to get people on board is to present a clear analysis in the form of the statements I’ve mentioned, with a bit of information to back them up.

For example:

Local authorities are struggling to recruit qualified and experienced planning officers. On average, each authority in England has 1.3 planning officer vacancies. That’s 9% of the planning workforce. And the time taken to recruit to each filled vacancy averages seven months. Furthermore, seven out of ten heads of planning do not consider their teams to have sufficient skills or expertise to address the more complex planning issues that they face. *

I might even add a footnote for each statement or assertion, explaining where I’ve got the data from to support it. (People are always bizarrely impressed with footnotes and references. Use them wherever you need something to have a little bit extra impact.)

Like this:

1 Vacancy data: MHCLG (2018) Planning Statistics (Workforce) & CIPFA (2019) Local Government Workforce Data; Skills data: LGA (2019) Local Government Skills Survey.

I try to structure my statements or assertions in such a way that they lead naturally to the conclusion I’ve come to and to the course of action that I’m proposing to take. That way, anyone reading it comes (if I’ve got it right) to the same conclusion that I did and agrees with what I’m planning to do because they’ve followed the same train of thought that I did.

This isn’t, of course, rocket science. It’s simply about presenting a convincing, well-structured, evidence-based argument. But it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of overwhelming people with data, when what they actually need is information, analysis, conclusions and action. And if you give them that, I can pretty much guarantee that your life – and theirs – will get a whole lot easier.

* I’ve made this up. Please don’t use it for anything important.

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