What Might Be Missing from Your Analytics Strategy

Quantitative data is not enough to solve your trickiest problems.

This article was originally published in Kellogg Insight Magazine and is based on insights from David and Kellogg colleague Joel K. Shapiro.

As data analytics becomes a more pervasive business tool, many leaders are being sold on the idea that all you need to diagnose any perplexing problem is more data. While there’s no doubt that quantitative analysis can play a powerful role in telling you what happens, even the most robust, granular data won’t tell you why something happens.

Instead, employing a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to identify both the what and the why, according to two Kellogg School professors, is what makes an analytics strategy a useful tool for change.

“Each has something powerful to offer,” says Joel Shapiro, a clinical associate professor of data analytics at Kellogg. “Quantitative analysis helps you identify broader trends, while qualitative analysis digs into human motivation, but the insights are hard to scale.”

David Schonthal, a clinical associate professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Kellogg, says the real value is in how these two approaches complement each other. “When you combine data analytics with a deeper understanding of a customer’s motivation and experience—that’s how you will create better products and services.”

So how exactly is this done? How should companies avoid the misconception that more data provide all the answers and instead combine “qual” and “quant” to find better solutions to important business problems?

Determine Where to Focus

When searching for new approaches to a long-standing challenge, collecting and analyzing data such as sales figures or conversions can lead to surprisingly fruitful insights.

“This is one place where quant can really help—just knowing where to focus design efforts is extraordinarily valuable,” says Schonthal. “Data can act as a source of inspiration, not just a source of validation.”

Say, for example, that a university has a retention problem with its nontraditional student population. A quantitative analysis can identify that women who live far from campus and have young children are at greatest risk of dropping out. That information is useful—to an extent—in that it identifies who is at risk and where to focus.

But knowing who drops out is not the same as knowing why they do so, which would help the school know how to solve the retention problem. At first glance, these data might suggest that offering childcare might be an appropriate strategy to enhance retention. But the numbers alone are not able to explain whether the retention problem is due to a lack of childcare, poor public transportation options, too much homework, or something else entirely.

Similarly, analyzing data can also make it easier for businesses to avoid addressing the wrong problems, chasing the wrong opportunities, or getting lost in minutia. If analysis reveals that new mothers make up a very small segment of total students, for instance, this might inform the university’s decisions about how much time and effort to invest in recruiting, childcare, or curriculum design.

“Data can act as a source of inspiration, not just a source of validation.” — David Schonthal

For example, Netflix instituted the $1 million “Netflix Prize” with the intention of improving its movie recommendation algorithm by 10 percent. Research groups around the world spent years before achieving the goal—with an algorithm so complex that Netflix never implemented it. Once the company added user profiles to customer accounts, the accuracy of recommendations increased by far more than 10 percent.

“Had Netflix thought of the user interface and algorithm holistically, instead of as distinct functions,” Schonthal says,” they would have invested in designing something intelligent rather than in squeezing the last few digits out of the recommendation algorithm.”

Capture Underlying Motivations

As companies harness the power of data analytics, however, it helps to remember that even if they find an interesting trend or relationship in the data, they may not fully understand how the variables are related or how that relationship will change over time.

“All predictions are based on past relationships,” Shapiro says. “But the environment is constantly shifting. What is true of Amazon shoppers today might be true tomorrow, but for how long? It’s hard to say. So, a business has to ask itself: ‘What are all of the reasons this might not be true tomorrow, or next year?’”

Understanding the possible reasons why a trend might exist is where more qualitative data methods can often help companies.

Say you work in the financial services industry. You know that banking has changed tremendously over the past two decades, with ATMs, online banking, and apps displacing most tellers. Yet a quantitative analysis indicates that your bank still has a hard time getting customers to sign up for “eBanking” accounts.

While the data can reveal that eBanking accounts are unpopular, it might not tell you why customers are resistant to eBanking. Is it a lack of trust? Are customers turned off by the website’s design? And just because the analytics show that app users seem happier with e-banking than desktop users, that does not mean the solution is to redesign the website; it could just be that app users are more comfortable with all types of e-commerce and e-service.

Qualitative analysis—in the form of focus groups, surveys, and customer observation—might provide some insight here by examining customers’ motivations.

What might this look like in practice? Take, for another example, IDEO—where Schonthal also works as Senior Director of business design. The company recently gathered a team of data scientists and designers to help a major travel company reinvent its customer sales and service processes.

An analysis of the travel company’s sales-team data found that although each salesperson worked at the same rate of commission, a handful were consistently outperforming their peers by a wide margin. Still unclear, however, was why that was happening—and how it might be replicated.

Through interviews and observation, IDEO learned something interesting: these high performers often ignored the tools and interaction recommendations that the company provided. Instead, they used unsanctioned methods to help build stronger personal relationships with customers—such as connecting with customers on social media and via text message. This highly personal, somewhat informal approach to their customer communications paid off in the form of materially increased sales, much higher employee satisfaction, and greater customer loyalty—often to both the company and the sales associates themselves.

Scale Your Insights

Still, insights derived from individual interviews and observations will not be useful unless a company can determine how applicable they are to most customers. The most effective tool to track how people behave on a large scale is quantitative analysis.

“You use ‘quant’ to figure out what happened,” Shapiro says. “You use ‘qual’ to figure out why.

Then at some point, you need to explicitly test your hypotheses about people’s motivations—to see if they scale into cost-effective solutions.”

This is where analytics re-enter the picture. By returning to quantitative analytics, companies can measure how a potential change might impact revenue, savings, cost, or whatever its value drivers might be.

In IDEO’s work with the travel company, for instance, even after the team had learned about the unconventional approaches used by some of the most successful salespeople, they still needed to understand whether those approaches could help lower-performing members of the sales team. Can these methods help anyone improve, or was this something only the high-performers can pull off?

“It’s always a process of triangulating what you learn in the qualitative research with the factors indicated by the data,” Shapiro says. “When ‘qual’ and ‘quant’ are presented as self-contained methods of analysis, they can lead to bad assumptions. Ultimately, the two should be linked in this dynamic, ongoing process of using data to solve problems.”

(This article was written by Drew Calvert, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles)

Stop Flailing and Start Delivering


Given the pace of life today, it’s increasingly common to feel overwhelmed by a blizzard of professional obligations. To-do lists grow despairingly long; calendars fill with meetings and calls. Even those with laser focus can struggle to keep up.

But some of us are more susceptible than others to getting swept up in this frenzied accumulation of tasks, struggling to set priorities or say no. By trying to do everything at once, some of us end up falling behind.

Carter Cast, a clinical professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School, spent several years examining career derailment. In his new book, The Right (and Wrong) Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made—and Unmade, he explores five common issues that impede career progress. Of the five, this is the issue people self-identify with most frequently.

“Careers can derail when people don’t deliver on promises,” Cast says. “This can be a real problem because fellow workers start to distance themselves when they think you can’t be counted on.”

Recognize this trait in yourself? Cast offers five recommendations on how to get organized and get ahead.

Be Clear on What’s Expected of You

Many employees, at least on paper, have more responsibilities than any single person can realistically tackle. A sales executive may have a vast client portfolio. An HR executive may be charged with the growth and development of hundreds of employees. A compliance director might technically have oversight over dozens of complex vendor relationships.

For an extreme example, consider the high turnover rate among Chief Marketing Officers. In 2016, the average CMO tenure at top ad-spending firms was just 42 months. Given that CMOs are responsible for a broad range of specialties—from advertising to brand management to customer experience—they are always in danger of stretching themselves too thin.

“CMOs can find themselves in real trouble by trying to take on too much,” says Cast, who is a former CMO at eBay and online diamond seller Blue Nile. “They can end up not delivering on the most important aspects of their job and end up derailing.”

Cast recommends approaching each role with an eye toward delivering results. This means coming to a clear understanding of what the company actually expects from you, and when. And while this is good advice for just about anyone, those of us who overburden ourselves need to stay particularly focused on the prize.

“Being clear with your boss on what success looks like is really important for setting expectations and ensuring you’re aligned,” Cast says. “What are your goals and objectives for the year? What are the key initiatives that map to those objectives? What are the timelines for those initiatives, and what sort of resources will you need?”

If you don’t address these larger questions early on, you may end up trying to focus on the wrong—or too many—objectives.

“You can win the battle in getting a great big span of control,” Cast says, “but then lose the war because you have so much to do that you can’t possibly deliver on it.”

Understand Your Organization’s Workflow Process

If you are struggling to finish what you start, consider whether you are thinking deliberately about what each step in a task entails. Those who over-reach tend to be creative people with lots of ideas but an unstructured way of approaching them.

“Their eyes are typically bigger than their stomachs,” Cast says, “which is why they tend to overpromise and underdeliver.”

To counteract that tendency, Cast recommends understanding the workflow in an organization. Most companies have established ways to move projects from inception to completion—project roadmaps.

“Decide which tasks will really move the needle for your organization, and focus on those first. You can’t treat every message in your inbox equally.”

“You may need to tap someone who knows this—perhaps a product or project manager—to take you through the steps so you understand what it takes to complete an initiative well and on time,” Cast says. “If you can draw a Gantt chart or some other tool that shows the amount of work to be completed in a certain period of time in relation to the amount planned for that same period, you’re in good shape. If not, you need to ask more questions and gain a better understanding.”

“If you say you’ll launch a new food product by June, but you don’t expect FDA approval until late April, and you need that approval before ordering the packaging film, which takes three months to deliver, then you’re setting yourself up to fail,” Cast says. “You need to know every step in the product-launch process!”

Be Intentional about Prioritizing Your Work 

By a certain point in our careers, most of us are used to keeping lists that outline what we have on our plate for the day. But there is a difference between jotting down a few scattershot items and taking a more systematic approach to prioritizing that list.

“Decide which tasks will really move the needle for your organization, and focus on those first,” Cast says. “You can’t treat every message in your inbox equally.”

One key part of prioritizing is knowing when you work best. Cast suggests breaking your day into segments and tackling challenging work during times when you are sharpest and most productive. If your brain is most active between six and ten in the morning, for instance, that may not be the best time to respond to noncritical emails. Save those missives for a built-in time slot dedicated to administrative tasks.

Just as important is isolating yourself from distractions during your most productive segment of the day. This could mean turning off email alerts or keeping the phone at a safe distance.

“If you look at your phone after every ping, you put yourself in response mode, which is common,” Cast says. “It ends up becoming a major distraction. The tail ends up wagging the dog. Remember that, by and large, your inbox is composed of other people’s agendas, not yours. Try to first work on your big priorities, then respond to your inbox.”

Learn How to Say “No” 

If you are feeling overwhelmed by your responsibilities, consider whether you are by nature a “pleaser,” as many high achievers are. Pleasers tend to take on more than they should—their default response is, “yes, why not?” But learning when to say “no,” and learning to do it tactfully, is critical for preserving valuable time and energy.

Of course, there is a reason that most of us are hesitant to say no: we want to foster relationships and stay as connected to others as possible. But guarding your time does not require disconnecting completely. Carter suggests turning requests into manageable “favors.”

For example, instead of sitting down for an hour-long conversation with a colleague about a project idea, you could take five minutes to share some ideas via email or over the phone. That way you maintain the relationship without sacrificing too much time.

“Entrepreneurs often struggle with this,” Carter says. “Especially if they become known, they’ll start getting all kinds of offers to be on panels and take non-essential meetings. All of a sudden, their time is not their own. They have to find ways to not lose their bearings and stay focused on the activities that will propel their startup forward.”

Look for Opportunities to Delegate 

In addition to learning how to say “no,” anyone struggling to cross critical items off of the to-do list needs to learn the art of delegating. Delegation doesn’t always come naturally to high achievers.

“We tend to think the best person to perform a given task is ourselves,” Cast says. We may also be under the mistaken impression that delegating is viewed as a sign of weakness.

Even in cases where you are the most qualified person to do the job, that does not mean you have to—or that you should.

“It’s easy to think that because you have a certain domain knowledge, you should perform every task in that area,” Cast says. “But if someone else can perform the task even 80 percent as effectively, and it’s not mission-critical, it might be a good idea to delegate.”

Apart from freeing up time to focus on more important tasks, delegating also helps others gain valuable experience and build new capabilities.

“In many cases, you have to learn to let go a bit,” Cast says. “Things won’t go exactly the way you’d like, but you have to move forward and avoid needless distractions.”


(Article written by Marc Zarefsky a freelance writer based in Evanston, Illinois)