Creating change requires translating from problems to analysis, and analysis to solutions. This means knowing how to break down and analyse specific problems, how analysis informs solutions, and crucially, how to communicate those solutions simply to a wide audience. This holds true for industry professionals, business analysts, consultants, policy makers, community activists and entrepreneurs. This blog uses examples to illustrate common problem-solving pitfalls and how to avoid them through better translating information.
A business employee gives their manager a well-rehearsed pitch for a workflow improvement project. Having limited interest in process-level issues, the manager loses interest as the employee describes the idea in minute detail. The manager rejects the pitch for having undefined business impacts and failing to align with their vision for the company.
A consultant works for a department providing public services. Their final presentation provides a detailed account of operational delivery across several jurisdictions. While presenting a dense table with various statistics such as delivery costs, number of department employees, number of citizens served, and so on, the client interrupts the consultant with a “so what?”
A group of students present their recommendations from a half-year capstone project to their client. Upon arriving at the client’s offices, they realize that their prepared presentation is incompatible with the client’s system. The students present nervously while pointing to a small laptop several meters away from the audience.
The employee, consultant, and students all propose potential changes, yet their audiences are unimpressed. A common thread across each situation is that the presenters fail to frame, analyse, and/or communicate complex information. Listeners reject the narrative given to them, and proposed changes appear unjustified regardless of their merit.
One solution to these types of problems is issue translation. Issue translation can be understood as reframing, analysing, synthesising, and communicating complex information. It has two main steps: Translating from problems to analysis, and translating from analysis to understandable solutions.
Translating from problems to analysis is needed because problems are usually found in the form of anecdotes or other types of disparate information. A lack of structure and granular detail makes such problems difficult to understand for decision-makers. The key to this translation is to identify a framework that can help structure the information. Frameworks in this context can be understood as widely applicable outlines that function as mental shortcuts. For instance, the business employee could have expressed their idea in terms of its costs and benefits. This would have reduced the problem into two simple categories. Using such a framework could have provided the manager with information on how the proposal could have strengthened the company’s performance.
However, simply analyzing information is rarely enough. Analysis must be complemented by communication that helps the audience understand the content and relevance of what is being said. The consultant might have analysed complex information using a framework, yet their presentation with data tables could have felt like death by PowerPoint. One way they could have summarised their findings includes using a metric such as cost per citizen served. Visualizations are also powerful means of communications, as graphs, infographics and pictures can greatly simplify a message.
A secret to successfully translating all the way from problem to solution is that selecting the right framework can help simplify how findings are communicated. As an example, the costs and benefits framework can structure analysis, and also be summarized in a single graph or even a single number such as return on investment. Furthermore, a good framework organises information in a way that is relevant, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. Beyond that, only the imagination sets limits for selecting or creating a framework.
What about the students in the example? As an MPA student, my capstone group and I faced blank stares as we trudged through our presentation on a laptop placed far enough away from the audience that they either squinted or didn’t bother to read the slides. While we thought we had translated well from analysis to solutions we communicated ineffectively because we depended on our prepared slides.
Similarly, most professionals default to PowerPoint or an equivalent for practically any presentation. Recently I observed a group of consultants (myself included) whose faces turned white when told that we could not use PowerPoint. However, after 20 minutes of intense creativity everyone gave engaging presentations that were more fun to give and watch than most recent presentations I have seen. Taking PowerPoint out of the equation allowed us to translate from analysis to solution unconstrained by the slide format. Sample visual aids included post-it notes in different colours, paper cut-outs, and filling a glass of water (half-full). The lesson is that issue translation is much like translating between different languages. There is not one prescribed or authoritative path, but multiple ways to express the same information.
Author: Knut Ulsrud is a management consultant working with KPMG in Edmonton, Canada. He specialises in advanced analytics, including machine learning and automation, helping clients drive informed decision making. His favorite part of issue translation is from analysis to solutions, which in many cases involve making pretty graphs or drawing on a whiteboard. Further areas of expertise include economics, business and strategic planning, data and records management, stakeholder engagement, and writing. He completed MPA programme at LSE in 2014 and chaired the MPA Student Association from February 2013 to February 2014