Real-world skills for analysts

Successful teams go through similar stages: forming, storming, norming and performing.

By F. Freeman Marvin and Paul Wicker

In a 2008 Interfaces article entitled, “Skills Employers Want from Operations Research Graduates,” two researchers from the Cass Business School in London found that the most mentioned skills in job ads for operations research (O.R.) professionals were communications related [1]. A third of the ads asked for teamwork skills and another third were looking for leadership skills. The authors conclude:

“Noticeable by its absence in many O.R. programs is the development of ‘soft’ skills. … Employers might find that newly hired or even somewhat experienced O.R. graduates might not meet all their skill requirements and might need in-house training” [1].

A team of operations research practitioners developed the Soft Skills Workshop as a professional forum to improve the interpersonal skills of OR/MS and decision analysts. The workshop is a unique learning opportunity that combines best practice tutorials with interactive practical exercises. The workshop has been held for the past three years in conjunction with the INFORMS Conference on O.R. Practice, recently renamed the INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics & Operations Research. The next Soft Skills Workshop will be held in Chicago on April 10 in conjunction with the 2011 conference.

The workshop is designed for newly graduated and mid-career analysts and other technical professionals in public sector, private and nonprofit organizations. The one-day, eight-hour interactive seminar is facilitated by workshop developers who bring decades of experience and real-life examples into the classroom.

Workshop Structure

The workshop is organized around six categories of people that analysts typically interact with during a project: clients, project team members, stakeholders, subject matter experts, working groups and decision-makers.

Partnering with clients. Creating and managing a relationship with the client is the first set of soft skills for the analyst. The workshop introduces participants to the sources of organizational complexity and the advantages of different client-consultant models. Participants learn to apply the Structured Dialogue Process to bring clarity to the client interaction. They learn when formal or informal contracts or terms of reference are appropriate to define the project objectives, scope and expected outcomes.

Forming project teams. Many complex analysis projects require a multi-disciplinary approach with team members from a variety of professional backgrounds. People who work in different disciplines bring unique perspectives but often have trouble building a shared understanding of the problem and solution approaches. Workshop participants learn the skills needed for building trust, meaning and common purpose in a project team. They learn the principles of good group process and proven techniques for planning effective meetings and managing interpersonal conflict.

Framing problems with stakeholders. The third set of soft skills involves collaborating with the people, inside or outside of the organization, who have the ability to influence the project or are impacted by its outcome. These key stakeholders may provide access to different sources of information but often bring conflicting objectives. Analysts need to know how to identify potential stakeholders, conduct a stakeholder analysis, use it to help frame the problem, identify key decision points and develop viable alternatives for analysis.

Interviewing subject matter experts. In this session, participants learn the skills of eliciting subjective probabilities from subject matter experts. They learn how to set up and properly conduct interviews, how to effectively gather probabilistic data and how to counteract cognitive and motivational biases.

Collecting data from groups. These skills cover how to elicit and combine value and risk preference judgments from groups of decision-makers, stakeholders or subject matter experts. Participants learn the techniques of analytical collaboration and the different group assessment approaches, including the nominal group technique, consensus groups and the Delphi process. They learn three swing weight elicitation techniques and four techniques for combining individual judgments into a group position.

Communicating results to executives. An analysis project can be a technical success, but if the recommendation is not understood or implemented by decision-makers, the project can fail. In the last set of soft skills, participants learn how to make effective use of graphs, charts and tables to best communicate results of their analyses. A wide variety of graphical visualization techniques are used to illustrate how to provide focused decision insight and tell a compelling story that aligns with the decision-maker’s objectives.

See the sidebar story for more examples of the skills that analysts learn in the workshop.

Successful teams go through similar stages: forming, storming, norming and performing.

Successful teams go through similar stages: forming, storming, norming and performing. © Yuri Arcurs

The Workshop Process

Workshop participants are assigned to a table where they work as team during the day. Course workbooks contain the lesson materials, a case study and practical exercises. Last year’s case study featured an analysis of the options INFORMS might take in offering a sponsored certification program for analysts.

Each team is assigned an experienced facilitator, either an instructor or an invited expert practitioner. The facilitators introduce the case study and coach the teams during the exercises. The lessons follow a similar format that includes the lesson objectives, specific soft skills and selected references. Most lessons are followed by a hands-on practical exercise that progresses the case study. Since the workshop is focused on improving soft skills, no computer models are built during the workshop. The simulated results of an analysis are provided to each team.

At the end of the day, the teams brief a “decision-maker” on their conclusions and recommendations. The role of the decision-maker is played by a special guest lecturer who provides additional insight into improving the teams’ soft skills and presentations.

The Instructors

The instructor team consists of six experienced operations research practitioners:

David Leonhardi (Boeing Company) leads strategy development activities within the aviation industry for future airplane product lines and production systems, business relationships and sustainability strategies. Leonhardi is also an adjunct professor in Seattle University’s MBA program, teaching sustainable business concepts and strategy.

Freeman Marvin (Innovative Decisions, Inc.) has more than 25 years of experience as a group facilitator, decision analyst and process consultant for government agencies. His approach to helping groups solve problems and make decisions blends his group facilitation skills, his knowledge of decision analysis methods and his experience using computer tools and groupware in small group settings.

William K. Klimack (Kromite LLP) has a wide variety of operational and analytic experience using decision analysis, simulation and other operations research tools for clients in government, the oil and gas and the pharmaceutical industries. His 30-year career includes serving as a college professor, company manager and management consultant.
Paul Wicker (Decision Strategies, Inc.) has 30 years of business experience in the chemicals and oil and gas industries. He has business knowledge and experience in marketing and sales, operations and product technology. Wicker has had extensive experience in working with commercial project teams to develop successful results and has worked as a decision analyst consultant for the past six years.

Donald L. Buckshaw (Innovative Decisions, Inc.) is an expert in decision and risk analysis, optimization and simulation. His expertise is the formulation and modeling of complex, ill-defined and data deficient national defense and intelligence community problems using a mixture of small teams of experts and commercial decision analysis tools or customized spreadsheet models.

Jack M. Kloeber Jr. (Kromite LLP) has extensive experience in R&D portfolio management, decision analysis, modeling and simulation, technology selection and strategy development. He was the head of portfolio management for several large pharmaceutical firms and is a co-recipient of the 2003 Decision Analysis Society Practice Award.

Business Analytics and O.R. Conference

The workshop has evolved over the past three years as organizers have received feedback from participants and colleagues. The workshop leaders have learned over time what skills are most needed, which workshop techniques are succeeding and how the workshop leaders can help extend and reinforce the development of soft skills with analysts when they return to their workplace. Workshop organizers continue to revise the content so that the workshop will be a fresh experience for returning participants.

The INFORMS Business Analytics and Operations Research Conference will also include for the first time a one-day track on “Soft Skills for Analysts.” Conference attendees can select sessions from a full track of soft skills presentations as part of the regular program. The speakers include well-known practitioners in the fields of operations research, decision analysis, organizational development and communication.

For more information, contact the Soft Skills Workshop team at: info@softskillsworkshop.com.

F. Freeman Marvin is an executive principal with Innovative Decisions, Inc. Paul Wicker is a senior decision analyst with Decision Strategies, Inc.

Reference

1. Sodhi and Son, 2008, “The Art and Science of Practice: Skills Employers Want from Operations Research Graduates,” Interfaces, Vol. 38, No. 2, pp. 140-146.

Six soft skills every analyst needs to know

– By F. Freeman Marvin and Paul Wicker

No. 1: How to Turn Your Client into a Partner

Discover the problem together. Engage the client to explore the problem space together. Use a proven method, such as the Structured Dialogue Process, an approach developed in the health care industry to improve understanding among physicians and hospitals about clinical priorities [1].

Make the client your champion. The effective client is not only a customer for your analysis, but is the champion for the project within the organization. The champion must be able to secure funding for the project, generate access to data, and manage expectations of decision-makers.

No. 2: How to Build a Winning Project Team

Follow a process. All successful teams go through similar developmental stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing [2]. Don’t try to take shortcuts. Let the process take its course.

Manage conflict. Help your team move through interpersonal and organizational conflict by using techniques such as the Nominal Group Technique (NGT), where each individual writes down their ideas before sharing and discussing them.

Practice divergent and convergent thinking. When divergent activities like brainstorming and convergent activities such as voting are used together, they create a natural “pulse.” If a team is pulsing too fast, it risks groupthink. If the pulses are too slow, the team risks becoming a debating society. Find a healthy pulse for your team.

No. 3: How to Collaborate with Stakeholders to Frame the Problem

Perform a stakeholder analysis. Stakeholders are the people who have the ability to influence the project or are impacted by its outcome [3]. Focus on the set of people or organizations whose interests are key to the success of the project.

Build a decision framework. Some decisions might only be resolved by changing policies or allocating resources that are above the level of the organization. Other problems may be troubling, but they can be delayed until later. Verify the decisions that remain in scope with the stakeholders to align expectations.

Create a value hierarchy. By creating a value hierarchy that includes all stakeholder goals and objectives, you will be able to use it to generate and evaluate new and better alternatives [4]. This “value focused thinking” approach is also useful for communicating the rationale for your recommendations to decision-makers.

No. 4: How to Conduct Interviews with Experts

Follow a structured process. Be clear about your purpose, identify experts who are acceptable to stakeholders and decision-makers, and schedule an adequate time and place. Follow a structured process: 1) motivate the expert on the importance of the task, 2) clearly define the variables to be elicited, 3) condition the expert’s responses with as much relevant information as you can, 4) ask the questions, and 5) verify the responses [5].

Counteract biases. Experts are known to be susceptible to cognitive and motivational biases, just like the rest of us. For example, anchoring is a common cognitive bias where we tend to “anchor” our judgment on an initial estimate, and then fail to “adjust” for uncertainty. To help identify these biases, consider bringing two experts together to discuss their interview responses.

No. 5: How to Assess Group Priorities

Group assessment approaches. There are several effective approaches to group assessment. The approaches vary by whether you ask for individual assessments and the degree of interaction among the group members. Select an approach that best meets your situation.

Use swing weight elicitation. Swing weights are the appropriate type of weight to elicit for a multi-objective analysis because they account for both the relative importance and the variability of the criteria being assessed. There are at least a dozen elicitation techniques you can use.

Bring the group to convergence. The analyst can choose from a number of methods to combine individual assessments: averaging, voting, consensus and melding. Regardless of the method you choose, always be prepared to perform sensitivity analysis to show how your analysis results would vary across the range of individual assessments.

No. 6: How to Communicate Results to Decision-Makers

Understand decision-makers’ objectives. Get access to decision-makers early in the analysis and at key decision points. This allows you to clearly understand their goals and objectives before you begin your analysis and to check your progress along the way.

Tell the story. Don’t drag the decision-maker through the entire chronology of your analysis. Tell a compact, compelling story that has a beginning, middle and ending. Create a rough storyboard of your final presentation at the beginning of the project, and modify it at key milestones.

References

  1. Cohn, Kenneth H., MD, “The Structured Dialogue Process,” Click: The Online Journal of the American College of Physician Executives.
  2. Tuckman, Bruce W., 1965, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,” in Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 63, No. 6.
  3. Gregory, Robin, and Keeney, Ralph L., 1998, “Creating Policy Alternatives Using Stakeholder Values” in “Strategic Development: Methods and Models,” ed. Robert G. Dyson and Frances A. O’Brien, pp. 19-38.
  4. Keeney, Ralph L., 1992, “Value-Focused Thinking: A Path to Creative Decisionmaking,” Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.
  5. Clemen, Robert T. and Terence Reilly, 2001, “Making Hard Decisions with Decision Tools,” Pacific Grove, Calif.: Duxbury Press.