Attended a user conference this week sponsored by Qualtrics. They are my go-to choice for survey administration, providing exemplary back-end user support and technical guidance for survey design and layout. Their first-time user conference in the Bay Area was well-organized and provided a tremendous networking opportunity to connect with other users of the system. In addition hearing about upcoming new services and products and case studies from existing users, there were break-outs for intimate round-table sharing on key topics.

What I found fascinating during the conference was the myriad of data that is being gathered in the name of research and customer service, without a clear business need being defined upfront. And more importantly, that this data is being provided to whomever requests it without any clear sense of what should be done differently based on the data. As someone shared, “I provide this information. Then I’m told that the information does not coincide with the fiscal goal setting and planning. And a year later I am asked to gather the exact same data, without any change being made based on the previous year data provided.” If this isn’t doesn’t align with the age-old definition of insanity, “Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results,” I don’t know what does. And while the conference represented a small sampling of those involved in the data gathering and research (termed “insight seekers”) phase and was mixed by academics and business professionals, it was a little disheartening to say the least.

So my request for all of you out there who are standing across from a client, boss or someone else asking you to gather some type of data or information, is to gently push back and ask questions. Be upfront and let them know you are not questioning their request for the date, just trying to fully understand:

• What is the data to be used for?

• Why is gathering the information important to the business?

• How will results of the data be used to support the business?

• What is the timing for the information need?

• Who is the data intended for? (or) How far up the organizational chain will the data be viewed?)

Asking questions to better understand the business need is one piece of a methodology called the “consultative approach.” And not just external consultants should be relying on this method, but so should anyone else being asked to gather data and information. The other two pieces to complete the consultative approach is to actively listen to the responses. Don’t just accept what is provided, but paraphrase what is shared, ensure you understand the nuances of the sender’s message. Ask leading open-ended questions, such as “Can you give me an example?” to probe for clarity.

Once you are clear on what you are being asked for, put the third spoke of the consultative approach into practice. Share your knowledge and expertise, best practices for information to gather, and suggest alternative or in addition to information that needs to be collected. If you don’t believe that what’s being asked for will achieve the business need, share that with whoever is making the request. Suggest alternatives or options for how to approach the data gathering and meeting the business need.

Practicing the consultative approach will not completely eliminate the insanity cycle of gross overuse or nonuse of data gathered or recommendations provided; it will certainly significantly reduce it. And isn’t that what most of us can hope for – the ability to know that the work we do and outcomes achieved make a difference to those within our organizations or those organizations we support?