I did a lot of reading over the holidays, as part of my annual get-a-jump-start-on-the-New-Year effort. And got some terrific inspiration from a book about analyzing data: Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning In Information by Christopher J Frank and Paul Magnone.

The book’s premise is that information overload is making it difficult for business people to focus and take action. “In our information-driven global economy,” the authors write, “the real challenge lies in keeping your head above the flood of data, learning how to separate information from facts, and acquiring the judgment to use what you find to inspire others to act.”

To deal with the deluge, Mr. Frank and Mr. Magnone recommend a number of strategies. One has particular relevance for those of us who communicate with employees—it’s so useful, in fact, that I’ve included it on my list of professional resolutions.

The idea is simple: Before you start any project, first identify your “essential question.” (The authors call this an “essential business question” but I’ve simplified it to cover a variety of situations.) The problem with being overloaded (with work, as well as information) is that we often plunge into situations without stepping back and asking what the issue is really about.

But asking the essential question provides perspective and “leads to an orderly, informed process of discovery and, ultimately, to success.”

The essential question “should be prescriptive. It should be written so that it has to be answered by a business action (target, explore, go, no-go, continue, etc.). Essential Questions do not have to be complicated. In fact, the simpler question is usually the better question: What business am I in? What am I providing of value to the customer? Which customers will pay for it?”

For example, let’s say you’re rolling out a new product or service. “The Essential Question should lead you to the one piece of information you need to make that rollout successful. That question might be: How do we identify our most promising prospects?”

What’s the payoff? Mr. Frank and Mr. Magnone promise that if you develop the habit of asking essential questions, “not only will your insight into business solutions, grow, but your personal brand will shift to consultant. And when you are also able to deliver the answer, your reputation will be that of a trusted advisor,” not just an order-taker.

Hope this helps you have a great year!

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