In any organization, time is at a premium—especially for managers. As an analyst, it is likely that you have received at least one brief and hurried call from a member of management asking for information of some kind, but without taking the time to give you much background because of their busy schedule. When this happens, don’t simply say “OK” and hang up! Instead, take a breath, kindly ask if you could have just a couple of minutes of their time to gain some additional insight, then ask the following questions:
1. Can you give me a brief overview of the situation?
When I was beginning my career as a young analyst, I didn’t feel it was my place to ask this question out of fear that management would think I was overstepping my bounds and venturing into higher-level issues that were none of my business. However, I soon realized that gaining an understanding of the “big picture” helped put what I was being asked to do into context so that I could approach the request from the proper perspective.
2. What’s the objective of this particular analysis?
Once you know what the situation is, determine specifically what the person hopes to accomplish based on your findings. Not only will this help you focus your efforts, but may also lead you to recommend alternative methods that you believe may address their request more appropriately.
3. How should the results be summarized or presented?
Monthly or quarterly? For the last two years or last five years? By customer group or by region? For all products, or just for a certain line? Clarifying upfront how the person needs the information to be summarized will save you from having to repeat all or part of your analysis if you are unable to segregate the final results in that manner.
4. Do you know if anyone else working on this project or something similar?
In some cases, another person is asked to work on the same analysis from a different perspective, or to address a separate (but related) part of it. If possible, find out who that person is and coordinate with him or her to prevent duplication of efforts, as well as to avoid providing different results to the same question (which can occur if multiple people each approach the same request using a different dataset or by specifying different parameters).
5. What’s your time table?
This is by far the most significant question of all, because in most cases the overall project (or a significant part of it) cannot proceed until you’ve completed your analysis. But make sure you get a specific (and realistic) answer! Many managers like to say “yesterday” or “ASAP”, but the first response is impossible and the second is vague. Evaluate how long the analysis will take, find out exactly when the results are needed, and mutually agree upon a specific date and time. Keep in touch with the person as the project proceeds, being sure to notify him or her if any issues arise that might delay delivery of the results.
In practice, most managers will eagerly comply with your request for additional information, but there’s always a chance that the person might initially be annoyed with your request. If this is the case, assure the person that you will be as expeditious as possible, but that their responses to your questions will help you deliver the results they need as efficiently and accurately as possible. What’s more (as has been my experience), practicing this technique shows the manager not only that you are capable of thinking at a higher level, but that you are interested in helping that person achieve his or her ultimate objective—and isn’t this what every manager wants?