(Open) Question Everything: Lessons from an Analyst

I love really good questions. Really good questions allow you to push yourself in new directions you never thought you could go. If I am “going through the motions” of reporting sales, calculating customer responses, or any of the basic questions that run a business, I am not challenging myself as much as I could. But, if I put one really good question out there, I could learn so much more and use several techniques along the way to keep myself sharp.

One of the techniques I use is to constantly ask “open questions.” I have come across the topic of open and closed questions from multiple places/talks/blogs, but here is the best way I can sum it up:

A closed question is one that elicits a short or definite response. Usually led with Who, When, and Where (and sometimes What). (Example: Who did this and when did they do it?)
An open question is one that requires thinking and are typically insightful in nature. These are typically led with How, What, and Why. (Example: What were you expecting as a result and why?)

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Say your boss asks you to recap last month’s performance regarding a promotion the company was running. To start, you ask the closed what, when, where and who questions:

What products were put on promotion?

When did the promotion officially start and end?

Where was the promotion ran?

Who was in charge of promotion?

Those typically have short answers: products x, y, and z. June 1st through 30th. All of our locationsTim Timmerson in Marketing put everything together.

See how those questions could all be answered in 10 seconds or less? That’s what makes them so closed– they give you the bare bones of details. Now, let’s look at the open how, what, and why questions:

How did we expect this promotion to perform?

Why did we run this promotion? Was it to increase customer engagement, to get our new products in more customers’ hands, etc.?

What else are we expecting from the results of this data?

What makes this a good promotion?

All of these questions require some deeper-level thinking to answer. Not only that, but they will also allow you to give a more thorough analysis and to know – ultimately – the questions that are trying to be answered. Odds are, your boss is not just looking for a recap, but instead a level of insight about what they could have done better and if the company’s promotional money was spent on a worthy cause.

In this example, let’s imagine that we define a good promotion as not only a sales increase but also by bringing in more customers, especially millennials, per Tim Timmerson in Marketing. I present you with two answers based on the types of questions being asked:

Results from closed questions: We made X dollars and sold Y units. This was a slight lift over our normal baseline of B dollars and C units. Overall, I think this was a good promotion and recommend running it again.

Results from open questions:  We made X dollars and sold Y units. This was a slight lift over our normal baseline of B dollars and C units, which worked well. However, we did not gain any new customers, which was the intention of the promotion. While this promotion was profitable, we did not hit our main target and therefore it is recommended to try a different promotion if we are looking to expand our customer base. Instead, I would recommend [insert product name here] at [select locations] as that product is what most millennials prefer and those locations have a high millennial population, per other analyses and demographic data.

This example may be a bit ad nauseam, but the point remains the same. If you ask great questions, you will get great results. Not only will you be able to answer the basic problem, but you will be able to provide more valuable insight. And the more valuable insight you can provide, the more you will be requested, and the better the projects you will be assigned, and so on.

I encourage you to actively think about some open questions in your next conversations and see where the answers take you! Now it’s your turn: What are some techniques you have for getting great results?

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