Considering Your Analytics in Retrospect

Many years ago at a leadership conference, I attended a breakout session about setting and achieving goals. The lecturer's advice boiled down to a two-step "backwards" process popular among successful leaders.

Step One: Imagine yourself immediately after achieving your goal.

Step Two: Imagine what you did immediately before that. Repeat this step until you are in the present.

Planning -- let alone executing -- success can seem daunting when viewed prospectively. By working backwards, however, you force yourself to retrospectively script the minutiae that will logically lead you to success. Plus, this "backwards" method is emotionally easier because it requires that you start with the fun part -- imagining your success.

That advice has stuck with me throughout my professional life -- and it applies to analytics just as well as any other area.

Customer response surveys are a great example. As community editor Shawn Hessinger and blogger Sandra Gittlen have both pointed out in recent posts -- Survey Fatigue Could Boost Social Media Mining and How to Battle Survey Fatigue -- the American public is getting fed up with these surveys. It's easy to see why: Companies don't know why they're surveying.

Oh, sure, executives have inklings that it is generally good to know when and why customers are dissatisfied. There, however, the understanding ends. Companies don't know what they're going to do with the data once they obtain it.

Accordingly, when implementing customer survey efforts, companies cast far too wide a net, going on a fishing expedition for data -- any data. They don't know what they're looking for. The result, all too often, is a 20-minute series of awkward questions that will probably get ignored (such as I described in my post, CRM Analytics Takes More Than Analytics).

Worse, by asking too many questions, it's all the more likely that the company will ask the wrong question (as I discussed in another post, E-Chat Today: Tedious Questions & Other Potential Survey Killers).

Another example is online sentiment analysis. Companies know that mining the Web for expressions of positive and negative sentiment yields valuable information. Indeed, online sentiment analysis has been used to successfully predict important future events -- including sales receipts, stock prices, and even election results. The problem for many is that they don't know how to fully realize that value.

Many misunderstand the use of online sentiment analysis, thinking of it as little more than generic polling. As blogger Cordell Wise has pointed out, "Just because a bunch of people on [Facebook] launch a campaign to bring back butter pecan [at a local ice cream shop] doesn't mean it's a widely held view." If 85 percent of sentiment about your brand online is positive, that doesn't mean 85 percent of the people love you. Perhaps almost all of the positive sentiment is about your product, whereas almost all of the negative sentiment is about your customer service. Context is important.

In whatever form they may take, your analytics efforts need focus. Otherwise, you risk finding yourself wondering "Now what?" with each new dataset. Retrospective step-by-step planning will help you focus on what you are going to do with the data before you determine what data you want to collect and analyze. This not only will help you avoid red herrings but will also allow you to plan the proper way to present your findings to colleagues -- folks who may have varied perspectives and diverse goals. This is especially important if political obstacles at your organization stand in the way of implementing "shake-up" solutions.

Finally, taking the retrospective approach will keep your analytics efforts straightforward and efficient, avoiding counterproductive guesswork. This translates to less time and money spent on what could otherwise turn your big data campaign into a big disaster.

Joe Stanganelli, Attorney & Marketer

Joe Stanganelli is founder and principal of Beacon Hill Law, a Boston-based general practice law firm.  His expertise on legal topics has been sought for several major publications, including U.S. News and World Report and Personal Real Estate Investor Magazine. 

Joe is also a communications consultant.  He has been working with social media for many years -- even in the days of local BBSs (one of which he served as Co-System Operator for), well before the term "social media" was invented.

From 2003 to 2005, Joe ran Grandpa George Productions, a New England entertainment and media production company. He has also worked as a professional actor, director, and producer.  Additionally, Joe is a produced playwright.

When he's not lawyering, marketing, or social-media-ing, Joe writes scripts, songs, and stories.

He also finds time to lose at bridge a couple of times a month.

Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeStanganelli

Also, check out his blog .

Clean Your Data with Visualization and Algorithmic Tests

Speakers at Bio-IT World explore techniques for biotech researchers and others working with big data to identify the accurate data in their data files.

Data Sharing: A Matter of Life and Death

Cooperation among medical researchers -- done right -- very simply can mean lives saved, but the research community needs education on how to execute on that collaboration.

Re: Visualizing the answers you seek...
  • 2/14/2012 11:13:33 PM

Great point, Gil! Impact is huge and probaly more important than simply finding the answers, because, of course, you answer those questions to have impact.

Re: Visualizing the answers you seek...
  • 2/14/2012 2:22:39 AM


I really like the way you presented the idea of examining your future in retrospect. You're right, it translates very well across just about every field from analytics to, well, anything. Picturing your goal and imagining yourself where you want to be along with deciding what you needed to implement to reach that goal is such a simple idea and yet so very empowering. 

Re: Visualizing the answers you seek...
  • 2/13/2012 4:34:46 PM

When asked how he goes about designing his dances, the famous choreographer George Balanchine said that he goes backwards. He starts by imagining the impression he is going to leave with the audience. Similarly, in the case of Analytics, it's less about visualizing the answer and more about the impact the answer is going to make.  

Re: Visualizing the answers you seek...
  • 2/13/2012 1:58:35 PM

One thing mentioned in this article that's very important is to use analytics to find past successes and try to identify what process or action made them succesful.  The need to question success is just as vital as questioning failure.

Understanding why something was succesful will enable companies to cast narrower nets in the future and save costs and money. 

Visualizing the answers you seek...
  • 2/13/2012 8:12:42 AM


I like this idea of visualizing success as a leadership tool and I think it translates very well into a strategy for deploying analytics. Simply visualizing the answers you seek should make it easier to figure out what questions you might ask to get there. I'm wondering if anyone else in the community can share some management or other philosophies from different fields that might translate well to analytics.