Are you too often frustrated that you’re not making a difference in your business?

Do your internal customers ever criticise what they receive from your team, asking “where’s the insight?

Sometimes this is due to technical skills or barriers that need to be addressed, but very often it’s due to poor communication. Do you need to get a better brief?

What I mean is this. Marketers or other stakeholders within your business can come to Customer Insight and ask for a piece of data/analysis/research work. If the analyst just gives them what they asked for (or a version of that based on their understanding of what they heard), it’s often a recipe for disappointment. Analysts can feel limited by work that’s not creative or using their technical skills. Your internal customers can be disappointed, to receive something other than what they meant, and which doesn’t meet their real need.

This communication challenge is of course well-known in the field of project management. The tree swing example normally helps to illustrate this dilemma.


But there is more, beyond the challenge of documenting requirements clearly, in a good brief. Have you also found that what your internal customer doesn’t ask for what they really need? Is what they want not what they need? That’s my experience too. So, to help analysts improve their questioning skills in this area, I’ve been borrowing a technique from the world of leadership coaching.

Trained coaches will likely have come across Socratic Questioning. It a style of enquiry, aimed at helping the one being questioned to critique their own thinking, assumptions and viewpoint. Working with experienced & junior analysts, I’ve found that the principles of Socratic Questioning can prove helpful to them in questioning what they are asked to provide, to get to the real need.

Do you need a better brief? Ask Socrates? Click To Tweet

Here’s a very brief intro to this style of questioning, as proposed by the great Socrates himself:

  1.  Conceptual clarification questions: “What exactly does this mean?”, “Can you rephrase that, please?”; “Can you give me an example?”
  2. Probing assumptions: “You seem to be assuming…?”, “Please explain why/how…?”, “How can you verify or disprove that assumption?”;
  3. Probing rationale, reasons and evidence: “Why is this happening?”, “Would it stand up in court?”, “How can I be sure?”;
  4. Questioning viewpoints and perspectives: “Another way of looking at this is…, does this seem reasonable?”, “What would… say about it?”;
  5. Probe implications and consequences: “Then what would happen?”, “Why is… important?”, “How does… fit with what we learned before?”.

Given previous advice on being action-orientated throughout any customer insight work, I find it helps to add another line of questioning to this model. That is to explicitly ask what action is going to be taken as a result of this request. This is important, to avoid precious analyst time being taken up with questions that are just out of curiosity. You need to know what action is planned.

None of the above is intended to be used word for word, or imposed without intelligent interpretation, in the language and culture of your organisation. However, applied sensibly, I’ve seen that it can help empower analysts to question more, to improve their skills in eliciting real business needs.

When the real need is understood and captured in a clear brief, then you stand a much better chance of getting real insight.

What have you found works? How do you get a better brief?