#84 Driving to Better Data Outcomes with Collaborative Questions – Interview w/ Jean-Michel Coeur

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In this episode, Scott interviewed Jean-Michel Coeur, who is the Head of the Data Practice at the consulting company Sourced Group.

Jean-Michel has developed a simple three question framework that works well with people asking for data, especially business counterparts. The questions typically lead to collaboration instead of confrontation and gets data consumers to share what they want to accomplish with the data instead of what is their request. It feels more like a friendly chat than an interrogation or “prove to me why this is worth my time”. He also recommends following up each question with “the reason I am asking is…” to explain specifically you aren’t pushing back, merely information gathering.

The three questions:

  • Do you know what this is for?
  • Do you know who is going to use it?
  • Do you know how they are going to use it?

Jean-Michel developed his three question framework after watching people struggle for years to properly request data and/or properly understand the use case of data consumers, often delivering solutions that did not meet business needs, wasting everyone’s time. Oftentimes, the technical person wouldn’t ask the right questions or they couldn’t even get to the end data consumer so they didn’t really understand the reasons for the data ask.

For Jean-Michel, the first question – Do you know what this is for? – helps to set the tone. It is not “why do you want this?”, which often makes people defensive. He tells the person making the ask that with more context, his team can better understand how to make what they deliver better. And sometimes, the person making the request will realize they aren’t really sure what it will be used for and can go back to the end user. A key is to not be a gatekeeper to the data, both in reality and perception.

The second question – Do you know who is going to use it? – starts to drive towards who will consume the data output and how – the use case is pretty important for delivering valuable data after all. For Jean-Michel, asking it in this way can often empower the person making the data request to lead the journey rather than undercutting them to get to the end user. It makes them part of the team. This is far better than the reaction he got previously when asking “who is the end user and what do they want?”

The final question – Do you know how they are going to use it? – means you can own the data user experience all the way through to the end consumption. Oftentimes, people deliver just the data into a warehouse or similar but if that is used in a dashboard, the dashboard is the user experience. This final question also helps data producers to suggest additional value-add features or to push back on some ill-defined requirements. E.g. “real-time” rarely actually means real-time. And Jean-Michel recommends understanding what you are delivering well enough to be able to answer the question of “okay, what does this mean?” After all, data projects/products are meant to deliver value and the value is informing business decisions with data.

And again, a crucial part of the conversation to add after each question is an explanation of why you are asking. This isn’t pushback, it’s information gathering. It’s how product marketing and product management are done! If you come at these questions from an empathetic angle, you all have a better chance of a positive outcome.

The output from the three questions is also immensely helpful to the data producing team. It ensures there is a real use case with real business value. It validates there is really an intention to use the data – otherwise Jean-Michel will push back. And it sets up a collaborative approach where the data producing team can make good suggestions for additional value.

Jean-Michel talked about the fallacy of the data ‘Field of Dreams’ of “if you build it, they will come.” The users will come. The value will come. Instead, work with intentionality. Any data you produce to share should be useful to someone. If you aren’t sure, have the conversation with potential users. But just storing data has a cost and are you really going to be able to enrich it enough to make it useful in the future?

One thing Jean-Michel thinks many companies get wrong is that when building a data platform, there is a window of opportunity and many data infrastructure teams want to build everything themselves, pushing out your time to returns. The tendency to be tech-oriented often comes at the expense of user experience as well. Data infrastructure teams need to think about the primary reason for a data platform: collecting and producing data.

For Jean-Michel, the concept of a data product owner in data mesh might not extend far enough. If you are producing data for consumers, you should own the full user experience. If people are consuming from reports, you should own that report. Same for a dashboard. We have to be careful to not leave those less data literate behind while helping them up their data skills.

Jean-Michel wrapped the conversation by saying every time you are asked to deliver data, be prepared to answer the “so what” question from a data consumer/stakeholder. Be prepared with something to answer. You are a partner to the business, not just a “data report monkey” so add that value and build the relationship with your business counterpart.

Jean-Michel’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jmcoeur/

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