Applying the Analytical Thinking Process – a sporting case study

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It’s hard to be an England cricket supporter at the moment. After being demolished by arch-rivals Australia in the Ashes series without winning a game, the England team were knocked out of the recent World Cup without even making it through the group stages and then limped to a drawn series in the West Indies.

Whilst this wasn’t much of a surprise to the weary supporters who have followed England for many years, when asked for a reason for England’s poor performance, the answer given by former Head Coach, Peter Moores, was quite surprising:

“We’ll have to look at the data.”

Fans and commentators were quick to scoff that this was the problem with the old management regime – an overreliance on facts and figures.

But let’s not judge Mr Moores too quickly. Perhaps the data is the best place to look.

The key is to know what you are looking for based on an established set of hypotheses and then to apply analytical thinking.

Cricket, like other sports, is awash with data. Every ball, hit, catch, wicket and run is recorded. On top of this, each individual player is scrutinised to the nth degree (heart rate, diet, fitness, yards covered etc.). It has now become commonplace to see analysts with computers sitting alongside team coaches.

This is symptomatic of the world in which we now live and whether you are a cricket aficionado or not, you will know that the business world is flooded with data.

We have instant access to more amounts of information, reports, facts, figures, materials, interviews, charts, graphs, evidence, news, intelligence, websites, books, surveys and records than we have ever had before.

Two fundamental problems have arisen.

Firstly, the prevalence of information means that it is very easy to get “lost in the data.” Without a proper framework you can forget the objective of your research, ignore what is really important to your client and waste time, money and effort looking in the wrong place. You can become overly reliant on computers to do the thinking for you.

The second problem caused by overflowing amounts of data is the ubiquitous readiness of the answer. Solutions are easy to find without too much effort (“just Google it”). We are becoming lazy, we prejudge (also known as confirmation-bias) and we are happy to simply go for the obvious, easy answers.

Both of these problems mean that critical analysis is becoming a dying art.

The difficulty for consultants is that it is analytical thinking that provides real value to the client. Insight comes from making sense of data and providing truly valuable recommendations. Clients want you to find the ‘blind spot’ that they have been missing all along.

Fundamentally, this is why they engage your services.

So how can we ensure clarity of analysis in the light of this prevalence of data?

The answer is the ‘Analytical Thinking’ process.

By using a hypothesis-based approach, within a structured framework, it is much more difficult to get lost in the data and you can save significant amounts of time, money and resources.

When you are sure who your ‘client’ is and know what success looks like for that client, you are able to formulate relevant, valuable outputs.

Rather than being a hindrance, the data can help to fuel ideas and add imagination.

The process can’t stop laziness but if you are truly critical of your conclusions, you are able to add real value to your client in your recommendations. This is ‘human intelligence’ and not ‘artificial intelligence’ and why clients choose to work with you and not a computer.

As a Director of a management consulting firm recently told me: “The analytical thinking approach can make your life more interesting, while also improving the quality of your work.”

So returning to the England cricket team, I would argue that “looking at the data” is not such a bad strategy, as long as the management have developed diagnostic hypotheses that produce insightful, valuable conclusions and recommendations.

I agree with certain critics that the data might not be able to fully take account of ‘human factors’ such as emotions, attitudes and team dynamics but this is just further confirmation that critical analysis can only be done by a human mind and not a computer.

What’s more, it is not simply acceptable for the England management to test the obvious – “we didn’t score enough runs so the other team won!” This is not critical thinking. They must ask Why? Why? Why?

Openside have been teaching the Analytical Thinking Process to consulting and professional services clients for over 25 years.

If you would like to find out more about the approach, which is perhaps more important now than ever before, we would be very happy to discuss it further with you.