Pushing ideas further

Here’s what I learned as an analyst: research broadly and do not stop at one idea.

The job of an analyst is write about what is not known. This requires primary research — that is, talking to people in the market you’re involved in, or collecting data about it. It also requires analysis, which is smart and rigorous reasoning.

The hard part about this is that there is no roadmap. If you are solving an algebra problem, there is an answer: the correct value of x. Original research is like doing algebra in which the question is ill-defined, you can boost the number of equations with more research, and there are dozens of methods that give contradictory results. You don’t know where to start, you don’t know what’s important, and you don’t know when you’re done.

If that sounds terrifying, do something easier. If it sounds exciting, you might be cut out to be a researcher, author, or analyst.

How to do research and analysis in ill-defined domains

I cannot give you a roadmap, because if there were a map, it wouldn’t be open-ended research. But I can give you some tips.

Let’s imagine, for example, that we are trying to figure out the future of magazines. You might undertake the following research activities:

  • Line up interviews with people in this market, like owners of magazine companies and magazine editors.
  • Also line up interviews with other people with a stake in the problem, like large media companies, search engines, advertisers, advertising agencies, printing companies, social media companies that benefit from links to magazines, magazine writers, and private equity companies.
  • Create a set of questions to ask them, like: What is changing in your business? How do you plan to deal with those changes? How is this affecting how you manage your business? What alliances are you making? What do you think the future will look like? Crucially, the set of questions must not be fixed. It will evolve as you learn more about the market and develop new hypotheses to test.
  • Gather data from other sources, like measures of magazine site traffic, advertising market estimates, or consumer attitudes as measured by surveys.

But these are only ways to gather information. Now you need to go further. You might develop a hypothesis (say, the magazine market will shrink by 25% in the next three years). Now you need to ask other questions. Where will people get the information and entertainment they used to get from magazines? Where will the ad dollars go? What new forms of content might replace magazines? How might magazine companies transform into something different?

At each stage, you may have multiple hypotheses about the future. None of your reasoning is certain, though. So you ask questions both intended to prove and to disprove your hypotheses. This allows you to take the analysis further.

One idea is not enough. You need multiple ideas. You need to connect ideas further. You need to examine the consequences of your ideas. You need to examine multiple possible futures. The objective is to reach conclusions further out and more interesting than what others have already found.

It’s easy to draw conclusions that you are certain are right; such easy conclusions are common and therefore useless. It’s hard to develop ideas that might be wrong. But those are the conclusions that are far more interesting. Developing evidence for those farther-out, uncertain results is what makes the research interesting.

Compelling writing

Analyses of current market trends — like changes in ad dollars spent on magazines in the last five years — are straightforward. Collect the data, create some charts, and deliver them.

But for more groundbreaking research, the evidence is likely to be all over the map. You may have case studies, examples, data points, quotes from experts, quotes from market participants, facts gleaned from news articles, frameworks, and diagrams. Your job is to weave all that together into a compelling story.

Whether that story is a book chapter, a research report, a white paper, or an article, the quality of the writing is what holds it all together and makes your ideas compelling.

This is why direct, fascinating, and persuasive writing is central to analytical work.

Research broadly. Develop ideas and push them further. Write the results as a compelling story.

It’s pretty challenging work. But it’s what makes you stand out as a writer, an analyst, or a thinker.

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