Special Conference Section: People to People
The art of communication, team-building and other soft skills are often critical to a project’s success.
By F. Freeman Marvin (Left) and William K. Klimack (Right)
In a recent article in Interfaces, the authors (Liberatore and Luo) point to four driving factors behind the analytics movement . One factor seems to be that a “focus on processes in many organizations has shifted demand for decision support and problem solving away from human decision-makers to processes.” And yet, Liberatore and Luo note, competing on analytics still requires well-rounded analysts: “In analyzing more than a thousand O.R. [operations research] job advertisements, Sodhi and Son (2008) find that employers value strong technical skills but also seek an array of soft skills.”
As practicing decision analysts, we have learned from experience that the lack of interpersonal “soft” skills can be a significant barrier to project success and the adoption of analytics within organizations. In order to help improve the interpersonal skills of analysts, we developed the Soft Skills Workshop in 2008 with a team of other O.R. practitioners to gather best practices and provide realistic training. Our team has conducted the workshop for the past three years prior to the annual INFORMS Conference on O.R. Practice (see sidebar story on page 13 as well as page 35). The workshop has received positive reviews from participants as a valuable developmental experience.
Based on the many valuable lessons we’ve learned while preparing and teaching the workshop, here are six soft skills every analyst should know:
1. How to turn a client into a partner.
The first soft skill an analyst needs to know is how to create and manage a winning relationship with the project client. Most analysts can’t wait to dive into the analytical complexity of a new project. However, analysts must also take into account the organizational complexity facing their clients – office politics, differing motivations, personality conflicts and group dynamics. The analyst and client must work as partners.
Discover the problem together. A client often begins a project by telling you what the problem is: “We need a tomato harvester that will not damage the tomatoes.” Don’t believe it. Instead, acknowledge that perspective and engage the client on a journey to explore the problem space together. We recommend using a structured dialogue process, an approach developed in the health care industry to improve understanding among physicians and hospitals about clinical priorities. The solution to damaged tomatoes, as you may know, was not a new harvester at all, but a thicker-skinned tomato.
Learn from each other. Analysis projects involve learning as much about a client’s problem as you can. Share that learning opportunity with the client. Help your client find a niche on the project where he or she can add value while learning as much as possible from you. This co-learning will pay off in increased communication and a better project outcome.
Make the client your champion. You have been trained in how to be a good analyst, but your counterpart probably has had no formal training in how to be a good client. The effective client is not only a customer for your analysis but is the champion for the project within the organization. The champion must be able to secure access to data, win funding for the project and manage the expectations of decision-makers.
2. How to turbocharge a project team.
Many projects require a multi-disciplinary team with members from a variety of professional backgrounds. People who work in different fields bring unique talents but often speak with their own “lingo” and approach problem solving differently. The team can get bogged down from the start. The second soft skill an analyst needs to know is how to energize a project team and help it move forward.
Follow a process. All successful teams go through similar developmental stages: forming, storming, norming and performing . Inexperienced teams often try to skip the storming and norming stages and head straight to performing. These teams fail to build the common trust, meaning and purpose necessary in a winning team. Don’t try to take shortcuts or you will end up in a ditch.
Plan your time. Teams can be more effective if they use their meeting time well. We use the acronym GRASP to remember everything to consider when planning a meeting: Goals and outcomes, Room and logistics, Agenda and time available, Support team, techniques and tools, and the Participants and observers.
Manage conflict. Many teams freeze up in the face of interpersonal and political conflict. Analysts can help the team move forward by using techniques that keep the team focused on the problem. For example, the Nominal Group Technique (NGT) is a well-known group process where each individual writes down his or her ideas before sharing and discussing them.
Practice divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent activities such as brainstorming help a team identify new options or important considerations. Convergent activities narrow the range of options and lead to choices. When these activities are used together, they create a natural “pulse.” If a team is pulsing too fast, it risks reaching premature conclusions – groupthink. If the pulses are too slow, the team risks becoming nothing more than a debating society. Find a healthy pulse for your team.
3. How to frame a problem.
The third soft skill an analyst needs to know involves collaborating with stakeholders – the people, inside or outside of the organization, who have the ability to influence the project or are impacted by its outcome. Stakeholders may bring very different perspectives on the problem and often introduce conflicting objectives.
Talk to stakeholders. Stakeholders may include managers, employees, internal and external partners, customers, suppliers and the general public. A stakeholder analysis can help you select the appropriate set of people whose interests are key to the success of the project. Structured interviews with stakeholders will identify their goals and objectives, alternative solutions and possible sources of data and information .
Build a decision framework. The decision framework is used to define the scope of the problem solution. Some aspects of a problem might only be resolved by changing policies or allocating resources that are above the level of the organization. Other parts of the problem may be troubling, but they can be delayed until later, simplifying the analysis. Verify the decisions that remain in scope with the stakeholders to align everyone’s expectations.
Create a value hierarchy. People are naturally “alternative focused.” When facing a choice, they only look at the alternatives before them and select the most attractive. By creating a value hierarchy that includes all stakeholder goals and objectives, you will be able to use it to generate and evaluate new and better alternatives. This “value focused thinking” approach is also useful for communicating the rationale for your recommendations to decision-makers .
4. How to elicit data from experts.
The fourth soft skill an analyst needs to know is how to elicit subjective judgments from subject matter experts when objective data are not adequate for an estimate or prediction. Expert judgment is especially important when historical or empirical data are unreliable, ambiguous or conflicting. The meaning of even the best data may require interpretation by a knowledgeable person.
Plan and conduct interviews. Planning expert interviews involves being clear about your purpose, identifying experts who are acceptable to stakeholders and decision-makers, and scheduling an adequate time and place. When you conduct the interview, follow a structured process: 1) motivate the expert on the importance of the task, 2) clearly define the variables to be elicited, 3) condition the expert’s responses with as much relevant information as you can, 4) ask the questions, and 5) verify the responses – ask, “Would you make a decision based upon these judgments?” 
Counteract biases. Experts are known to be susceptible to cognitive and motivational biases – just like the rest of us. For example, anchoring is a common cognitive bias where we tend to “anchor” our judgment on an initial estimate, but then inadequately “adjust” for different scenarios or range of uncertainty. To de-anchor an expert, suggest data at both extremes first before asking for an estimate. Many motivational biases, such as having a personal stake in the outcome of an event, are subtle and can even be subconscious. To help identify these biases, consider bringing two experts together to discuss their interview responses.
5. How to collect data from groups.
The fifth soft skill an analyst needs to know is how to elicit and combine assessments from groups of decision-makers, stakeholders or subject matter experts. Many projects involve a committee, panel or other type of working group that is tasked with providing input to the analysis in the form of relative values or priorities.
Group assessment approaches. There are three effective approaches to group assessment. The Delphi Method elicits individual, but anonymous, assessments from a group and then combines them mathematically. Consensus groups, on the other hand, use free and open discussion to arrive at a group assessment with no attempt at eliciting individual assessments. The NGT, discussed above, is a balanced approach – each group member makes an individual assessment, followed by open discussion and consensus on a group position.
Use swing weight elicitation. Groups are often tasked with providing criteria weights for an analysis. Swing weights are the appropriate type of weight to elicit for a multi-objective model because they account for both the relative importance and the variability of the criteria being assessed. There are at least a dozen elicitation techniques you can use. Each technique has advantages and disadvantages. Learn several techniques and practice them until you feel confident in front of a group.
Bring the group to convergence. The analyst can choose from a number of methods to combine individual assessments into a group assessment. These include averaging, voting, consensus and melding. Regardless of the method you choose, always be prepared to perform sensitivity analysis to show how your analysis results would vary across the range of individual assessments.
6. How to get a decision-maker to yes.
The sixth soft skill an analyst needs to know is how to communicate results to executives and other decision-makers in an organization. A project can be a technical success but have no impact if the results are not understood and accepted.
Understand the decision-maker’s objectives. The decision-maker may not be your client. Get access to senior leaders early in the analysis and at key decision points. This allows you to clearly understand their goals and objectives before you begin your analysis and to check your progress along the way.
Tell the story. Tell a compact, compelling story. Don’t drag the decision-maker through the entire chronology of your analysis. Like any good story, your story should have a beginning, middle and end. Draw your conclusions on a single chart. Create a rough storyboard of your final presentation at the beginning of the project. This exercise will help check your assumptions. It can also serve as a guide in planning your analysis.
Provide insight. Presenting complex quantitative information is a challenge. Your goal is to allow the decision-maker to discern the important aspects of the data. Different types of visuals are better at delivering different messages. For simple results, a table is best if you want the viewer to recall the data. A graph of the same data may better convey a trend if that is the message . Always include a process chart to show that you understood the problem and that you followed a logical path to arrive at the results.
How to Have a Lasting Impact
Mastering these six soft skills will allow a project analyst to integrate the technical analysis with the social and political fabric of the organization. In the end, the value of any analysis project is measured by the lives of the people it affects. Seek to have a lasting impact by following these final guidelines:
- Be a good listener. Practice the skills of a good listener. Ask open-ended questions, paraphrase discussions and show empathy for people who are touched by the project.
- Seek to build consensus. Projects that reach conclusions by consensus have a better chance of success. Consensus ensures that everyone involved has had their say and encourages commitment to action.
- Transfer soft skills to the organization. Teach what you have learned to others. Build organizational competency as you conduct the project and instill the attributes of a high-performing organization.
Freeman Marvin (firstname.lastname@example.org) has more than 25 years of experience as a group facilitator, decision analyst and process consultant. His expertise is in the integration and application of organizational development, operations research and electronic collaboration technologies. He has worked as an operations research analyst for Rockwell International and Decision Science Consortium, and was a senior member of the technical staff for Northrop-Grumman TASC. He is now an executive principal with Innovative Decisions, Inc. He holds a master’s degree in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a B.Sci. from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Bill Klimack (email@example.com) ) has a wide variety of operational and analytic experience. As a senior consultant for Decision Strategies, Inc., he uses decision analysis, simulation and other operations research tools for clients engaged in exploration and development of hydrocarbon deposits. He previously developed and implemented O.R. tools for management of portfolios of programs in government and the private sector. A retired Army colonel, Klimack’s assignments included serving on the faculty of the Department of Systems Engineering, U.S. Military Academy, where he was director of the Operations Research Center of Excellence. A co-recipient of the 2003 Decision Analysis Society Practice Award, he holds a Ph.D. in operations research from the Air Force Institute of Technology.
- Liberatore, Matthew J. and Luo, Wenhong, “The Analytics Movement: Implications for Operations Research,” Interfaces, Vol. 40, No. 4, July-August 2010, pp. 313–324.
- Tuckman, Bruce W., “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 63, No. 6, 1965.
- Gregory, Robin, and Keeney, Ralph L., “Creating Policy Alternatives Using Stakeholder Values” in “Strategic Development: Methods and Models,” ed. Robert G. Dyson and Frances A. O’Brien, 1998, pp. 19-38.
- Keeney, Ralph L., “Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking,” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass., 1992.
- Clemen, Robert T. and Terence Reilly, “Making Hard Decisions with Decision Tools,” Pacific Grove, Calif.: Duxbury Press, 2001.
- Tufte, Edward R., “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” Graphics Press, 2001.
|Soft Skills Workshop: Real-world skills for analysts|
|A team of operations research practitioners developed the Soft Skills Workshop in 2008 as a professional forum to help improve the interpersonal skills of operations research (O.R.) and decision analysts. For three years, the workshop has been held prior to the annual INFO RMS Conference on O.R. Practice. The next Soft Skills Workshop will be held in Chicago on April 10, prior to the 2011 INFO RMS Business Analytics and Operations Research Conference. This year, the conference will also include a one-day track on “Soft Skills for Analysts” as part of the regular conference program.The Soft Skills Workshop is a one-day, hands-on seminar for new and mid-career analysts. The workshop teaches the critical people-to-people skills necessary to a successful analysis project. There are no pre-requisites needed to attend.
The instructor team organizes the day around six categories of people who analysts must interact with during the course of a typical project: clients, project team members, stakeholders, subject matter experts, working groups and decision-makers.
Workshop participants are assigned to a table where they work as team during the day. Course workbooks contain the lesson materials, a case study and practical exercises. This past year’s case study looked at whether or not INFO RMS should sponsor a certification program for analysts.
Each table team is assigned a facilitator, who is either an instructor or an invited expert practitioner. The facilitators introduce the case study and coach the table teams during the exercises.
At the end of the day, the teams must brief a “decision-maker” on the results of their analysis. A special guest lecturer plays the role of decision-maker.
The Soft Skills Workshop team includes: William K. Klimack (senior consultant, Kromite, LLC ), F. Freeman Marvin (executive principal, Innovative Decisions, Inc.), Paul Wicker (senior decision analyst, Decision Strategies, Inc.), Don Buckshaw (senior principal analyst, Innovative Decisions, Inc.), Jack Kloeber, (partner, Kromite, LLC ) and David Leonhardi (Boeing Commercial Airplanes).
For more information on the workshop, visit: http://meetings2.informs.org/Analytics2011/softskills.html.
For more information on the conference, visit: http://meetings2.informs.org/Analytics2011/.