I Know Exactly What You Mean…I Think

Nov 10, 2016


A few nights ago I went out to dinner with family and friends and the simplest ordering exercise reminded me how easy it is for two people to miscommunicate over the most basic things. The best part to witnessing this is that they didn’t even realize it!

My friend asked about a particular dish and the server responded with a very thoughtful—albeit rehearsed—response that eventually convinced my friend to order the dish. About 15 minutes later when the dish was served, I watched as my friend’s expression melted into disappointment. “Well, this isn’t what I was expecting,” she said. Unfortunately, the meal turned out to be not at all what she was expecting. So what went wrong?

This story about my friend and the server illustrates that each of us have a very different way of thinking about the world. No two ways of thinking are exactly the same. When a server at a restaurant describes a dish, they are most likely doing it from the perspective of trying to make a sale and maximize their tip at the end of the night. All sorts of mental calculations are happening when the server is explaining the dish. The patron, however, is looking to have a specific need met. They are also calculating, formulating, and painting pictures inside their own mind.

The game of telephone illustrates how communication often works, as the message received isn’t always the same message as was originally delivered. One of my favorite examples of how easy it is to miscommunicate is from The Project Construction Cycle.

How do you remedy this? By asking the right questions.


People’s perceptions are formed by differences in the culture they grew up in, the languages they speak, what they studied in school, interests, hobbies, and more. In the world that we work in, we are constantly meeting new clients whose needs change often. Not only that, the data that they have to answer those needs is different. There isn’t an “out-of-the-box” data management or analytics solution. For every business we work with, one of the most important things to understand is what the client is looking for—is it a tire swing or a roller coaster?

Business leaders may answer one way, but often times it takes listening to the employees in the trenches to understand the pain points that prevent alignment on solving key problems. Asking open-ended questions and then listening to the answers is key to being successful as a consultant and as a data scientist. It might seem intuitive to “ask the right questions,” but what does that mean? In the tree swing example, once the client asked for a swing we should take it a step further. We’d follow up their request with something like: “we have a tree with a branch and we can hang the swing from that branch with two pieces of rope; however, the weight ratio may not hold everyone that wants to use this. How many people are planning on using this swing?”

From a data scientist’s perspective, it is not good enough to know the 30,000-foot description. Rather, understanding the need at the most granular level will help to understand and craft the final output.

In addition to asking questions at the beginning of the project, it is also important to constantly communicate and continue to ask questions throughout the project. For example, at a previous company that I worked for we would do an NPS (Net Promoter Score) survey immediately after purchase. Not surprisingly, most people would give us a very high recommendation at the point of purchase. We then decided to see how NPS changed over time. For those same people that were surveyed just 6 months later, removing any anomalies, we saw a decrease in NPS by 25%! Their opinion about the company or product hadn’t changed; they just no longer had the emotional high of receiving a new product.

As you start your next project, here are a few simple tips for ensuring successful outcomes:


Be explicit in defining what you want to accomplish before asking questions. As Steve McConnell, author of Code Complete, says: “The penalty of failing to define the problem is that you can waste a lot of time solving the wrong problem. This is a double-barreled penalty because you also don’t solve the right problem.”


Don’t just settle on what the data initially tells you; ask questions throughout the project to ensure the best outcome to the project. At Elicit, we challenge ourselves to find at least three options for solving problems.


Take the time during progress reports to revisit your end goal to make sure you are on track. Course correcting along the way helps to avoid ending up with a roller coaster when the goal was to build a tire swing.

It takes time to hone the skills of questioning and listening. Throughout your career you have to focus on these skills to make sure you understand those unstated wants. Listen and learn from the conversations around you and sooner than you think you’ll be a interrogating pro!

And if you are interested in seeing how the tire swing cartoon has evolved to include other disciplines, check it out here.