Analysis vs. Description

Imagine you and your friends at the bar, talking about your problems
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Most of us are fairly adept at describing the Who, What, Where, Why, and How of our circumstances.  Go out to a bar with friends or coworkers, and after a few drinks inevitably you’ll become experts at describing all the current successes, problems, and complaints of your lives.  Anyone can Describe, anyone can answer the first order questions of any story.

Say you’re complaining about a problem at work: your boss keeps giving you low level admin tasks to complete.  Who: boss, What: giving you admin work. Where: the office. Why: presumably because it needs to get done. How: presumably over email or face to face. Description is a prerequisite for analysis, but in itself it is relatively useless: so you’re fully aware of how much your boss giving you admin work sucks.  What are you going to do about it? In fact, description without analysis, particularly of negative situations, can be detrimental because you’re dwelling on the negative aspects of your situation without developing a path forward.  

That’s the question that good analysis must answer: given the reality of the situation, what is the best path forward? What are the different strategies or opportunities I could seek out in order to improve or remedy this situation?  This is also how we can separate the work of analysis from description. Description attempts to capture the reality of the situation, while analysis seeks to understand all of the other necessary information needed to determine the best path forward.  Description does not compel action,: analysis is the preparation before taking action.  

So we know that your boss gives you admin work (which you don’t enjoy).  Possible questions that you should ask in your analysis: how much time am I actually spending each week on admin tasks? Is this really too much? Is there other, more valuable work that I could be doing? Is there anyone else on my team that feels this way? Are there other people in my same role in other parts of the business that are also dealing with this problem?  Is my manager aware of how you feel about this? Do I feel this way because I truly don’t enjoy these tasks, because Ifeel overwhelmed, or because of the way that my manager asks me to do them? 

In the course of answering these questions you’ll gather the information you’ll need in order to make a better decision. By quantifying the amount of time you’re spending on tasks, you’ll be able to go to your manager with real data about a problem, rather than a complaint.  By determining the other, more valuable work you could be doing, you’re able to build a better business case for why you shouldn’t be spending time doing admin work.  You might find that other members of the team are not spending their time on admin tasks at all, in which case you can provide a path forward to your manager, that the tasks be more evenly split across members of the team.  

As it turns out, your manager was unaware with how much admin work they were giving you in the first place!  Your manager was only leaning on you because they knew they could depend on you and they thought you had enough bandwidth to accomplish the tasks without your other work suffering.  Going forward they’ll be happy to distribute the admin tasks more evenly, and they’ll appreciate that you were mature enough to bring it to their attention in a thoughtful way, rather than complaining about it. 

Of course there will be times where you are not able to answer every question you posed in your analysis, and you might come up short of a clear path forward.  However you will probably have narrowed down set of options, each with their own pros, cons, potential costs, and benefits. You can now consider each of these options more in depth, and if you still can’t determine the ‘right’ solution, you can still choose the best path forward with the information you have at the time. 

Marcus Aurelius wrote “what stands in the way becomes the way.”  It is easy to allow ourselves to gripe about our current circumstances.  Analysis requires the additional work of answering deeper questions, but also enables you to find the solution to your problem.

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