Start backwards. This is probably the most crucial piece of advice I can give to someone working with and needing to report back information. Begin from the end – sounds a little funny, I know.
Here's what I mean by start backwards. Before you jump into either analyzing or (especially) collecting your own data, take a few minutes to map out your data goals. When all is said and done, what do you want to be able to say, answer, or display? This is such a simple exercise that it often is overlooked and rarely explicitly carried out.
My preference is the cocktail napkin approach. I take some paper and rough out the charts, graphs, or tables that I want to be able to construct using the information. By doing this, I know exactly which variables (or pieces of data) I need to have in order to create these data visualizations. It forces me to very concretely decide what I need to have to paint my picture. I think many of us do this to a certain extent; however, often this step isn’t carried out in a purposeful manner. This doesn’t have to be an extensive or formal process. If the cocktail napkin approach isn’t your style, find what actionable manner is (for example, constructing mock data tables in Excel). The main purpose is that you are thinking through what you want to be left with at the end so that you can make sure those points are gathered from the beginning.
There are two main reasons I think this is a powerful exercise. First, this process makes you think through exactly what information you need to collect. When you have laid out what data you need, you can make better decisions about what to cut when faced with time, cost, or practicality considerations. Essentially, you become more efficient. Second, mapping out your results also helps you figure out how to go about gathering your information or the kind of information you need. For example, you could figure out that you want to be able to talk in terms of number of days rather than months. Knowing this on the outset makes for easier reporting on the backend.
Some of you may be thinking, “but I don’t analyze data.” Oh, but you do. Each day and in every aspect of our lives, we collect, process, interpret and interact with data. While this is mostly done informally (gee, this is the third day that new deodorant doesn’t seem to be cutting it), we participate in information collection and analysis constantly. Where I see this process most beneficial for sales managers is when looking at coaching activities. Before meeting with your reps, map out a game plan for your meetings. Decide what you want to be able to walk away with so that those goals can be met during the meeting. When you know where you want to end up, you can better decide what to ask, how to ask it, and what points need to be made. Starting backwards can improve your moving forwards.
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